Sheriff's forum

Pictured (l-r): Sheriff’s candidates Sheriff Ramsey Bennett, Robby Boatright and Gary Simmons are shown at last week’s forum with The Times News Editor Sarah Gove who moderated the event. Candidate Greg Stone did not participate in the forum.

Technology, training, guns take spotlight

Law enforcement methods, leadership style and training were the main issues in a wide-ranging forum featuring candidates for sheriff held last week.

The hour long debate was held Thursday night at Emmanuel Baptist Church and recorded for broadcast beginning last Friday night on Facebook and Youtube. The debate can be seen unedited, in its entirety, on The Times’ Facebook page.

An in-person town hall was scheduled for April, but was canceled due to the ongoing threat posed by  COVID-19 (coronavirus).

Three of four candidates seeking the office of Pierce County Sheriff  — Incumbent Sheriff Ramsey Bennett, Major Robby Boatright of the Blackshear Police Department and Retired Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Ranger Gary Simmons — participated in the forum.

The fourth candidate, Retired Georgia State Trooper Greg Stone declined an invitation to participate. Stone told The Times he saw no benefit in participating in the forum since early voting is already underway. Stone previously declined an invitation to participate in the in-person forum initially set for April as well.

All four sheriff’s candidates are running as Republicans.

Each candidate was allowed to make an opening and closing statement and each candidate was given one minute to respond to each question. Candidates were also allowed to offer 30 second rebuttals to statements made by their fellow candidates.

Questions for the forum were submitted by Pierce County residents or written by The Times’ staff. Some questions were submitted as part of a class project by students at Pierce County High.

In opening statements, Bennett told citizens “it is my honor to be your sheriff” and touted what he called a “proven record” in asking voters to give him another term in office.

Boatright highlighted Pierce County’s assets as a close-knit, “beautiful” place to live and asked to be allowed to serve the people as sheriff.

Simmons cited a desire to honor his mother’s dying request that he follow his calling and get back in to law enforcement.

Throughout the forum, the candidates were polite and respectful, though Bennett and Boatright disagreed frequently, rebutting the other at least once. Simmons tried to stay out of the conflict between the pair, though he often agreed with Boatright that changes need to be made in how Bennett operates the sheriff’s office.

Boatright emphasized the need for improved training, technology and equipment and a change in attitude at the sheriff’s office.

“The sheriff’s office does just the bare minimum in training, the weapons need upgrading and there’s lots of tension between the sheriff’s office and other agencies. No one wants to help Pierce County,” he said.

Boatright specifically mentioned the need to improve training and upgrade firearms and technology.

Among his policy proposals are offering advance training, purchasing body cameras and buying new firearms for every deputy.

“We don’t need to do just the basic training where deputies sit in class and watch slideshows,” Boatright said.

He touted his experience as a certified training instructor and called for hands on training exercises.

Bennett fired back saying he had improved training throughout his time in office.

“I doubled training requirements as soon as I took office and I increased them again at the beginning of my second term,” the sheriff said.

Simmons stayed out of the exchange between Bennett and Boatright, but emphasized he, too, was a certified training instructor during his career with DNR.

Boatright charged that Bennett was slow to adopt technology that would improve law enforcement.

“There is no technology whatsoever,” he said.

He specifically called for the purchase of body cameras for each deputy. Simmons also endorsed the use of body cameras.

“The cameras protect both the deputy and the public,” said Boatright.

Simmons said the use of body cameras had been an important tool during his career as a ranger.

“It changes things when (you have video) and the deacon of the church would cuss you out,” Simmons said.

Bennett responded by saying the sheriff’s office has tried to upgrade with new technology as much as possible.

“Every deputy has a computer in his vehicle and can do much of their work in the vehicle,” he said.

Bennett also pointed out the sheriff’s office has brand new Tasers.

Boatright then turned his attention to firearms used by the deputies, roundly criticizing their age and accuracy and calling for an across-the-board upgrade in weapons and to make them all uniform.

“The weapons are 80 years old,” Boatright said.

Bennett criticized Boatright’s proposal, specifically panning his choice of weapon.

“I didn’t know that a firearm went out of date. I don’t want his Glock® Tupperware®. I am carrying the Colt® steel. I trust it and there isn’t a think wrong with it,” he said.

Boatright contradicted the sheriff saying deputies he had supervised in training at shooting ranges constantly had problems with gun malfunctions.

“We need to utilize the newer... Glock.. and have one standard weapon for state agencies, the city and the sheriff’s office,” he said.

The sheriff countered that Boatright and Simmons were going to spend lots of money making upgrades in training, equipment and technology.

“We will always need more than we can afford. I’m open to (improvements.) But, you’ve got to crawl before you can walk,” he said. “You try to do what you can to improve while also staying within your means.”

In other financial issues, Bennett touted that arrests are up and crime is down and that he is careful with taxpayers’ money.

“The sheriff has to watch lots of things, every situation, even the money,” he added.

Boatright countered by pointing out Bennett had been overbudget an average of $250,000 each year — or about $1.5 million over the last six years.

Bennett countered there are many things beyond the sheriff’s control.

“You have to do the best you can to keep costs under control,” Bennett said.

The sheriff then used an example charging that Boatright  is a free spender.

Bennett pointed out his four investigators served 134 warrants in a six-month period using an $85,000 line item in the sheriff’s budget.

“Mr. Boatright is an investigator with City of Blackshear with a budget of $98,000. They served three warrants in six months. That comes out to $33,000 per warrant. When we talk about who’s doing the work, we are doing the work,” Bennett asked.

Simmons admitted he had not studied the budget, but pledged he would run the office in a conservative manner, while trying to upgrade equipment and technology.

Boatright then opened up a new line of attack on the sheriff concerning leadership style.

Boatright charged that Bennett is not accessible and doesn’t return phone calls.

“I promise the citizens that I will be completely accessible. I will return your phone calls. My phone is on 24 hours a day, seven days per week,” he said.

Boatright then sought to prove that promise.

“My cell number is 590-7894,” he said.

Boatright said tensions with the sheriff’s office and police department are high and he said other law enforcement agencies including neighboring departments and sheriff’s offices, the GBI and GSP don’t want to work with Pierce County.

“I am an easy going guy and I will work with all local law enforcement agencies and the public to serve,” he said.

Bennett said he has proven he can work together with anyone over his eight years in office.

“The ACE Team was my idea. I’ve proved I can work with the city and other departments,” he said. “GBI, GSP, other agencies do work with us. But, we also need to do as much as we can on our own,” Bennett countered.  

Boatright had been an investigator with the ACE Team until he qualified for sheriff. Bennett fired him at that time.

Asked if he would re-hire Boatright if he is re-elected to help ease those tensions, Bennett’s answer was short and to the point.

“No, I will not,” he said.

Simmons stayed out of that exchange, too, emphasizing ideas he has for improving service in the sheriff’s office.

Simmons pledged to implement youth-oriented policing in the sheriff’s office.

“I am going to eat lunch in the schools as often as I can,” he said. “I want to develop a rapport and relationships with our young people.”

Simmons also seeks to change the county’s two deputies per shift operations. He said the sheriff’s office needs to call on other agencies to help out, but his time expired before he was able to lay out his plans for deputies.

Before the buzzer sounded, Simmons pointed out the danger of the shift arrangement.

“If you have a wreck on Georgia Highway 32 and a deputy is there and another deputy is at Bristol and then you have somebody breaking in at Sunshine Grocery,” Simmons said.

Additional discussions brought up the need for changing at will employment and implementing a nepotism policy.

Boatright said deputies are scared for their jobs since the sheriff can fire them at any time. He called for some form of civil service protections.

“If a deputy is not doing his job, due process will cause him to lose his job,” he said.

Bennett said he saw no need for a nepotism policy as long as relatives are not in direct supervision of each other.  

In a rare moment of consensus, all three men were strong supporters of concealed carry laws.

“I am in favor of it and if you carry you need to know how to use the weapon,” said Simmons. “Otherwise, you’ve given the bad guy a weapon to use against you.”

Boatright addressed other issues including stressing the need to help deputies with salary and benefit costs. He said deputy shares on the family insurance plan are $1,400 per month.

In response to another question, Boatright said deputies caught speeding when not responding to a call, should be ticketed just like any other citizen.

Bennett talked about efforts to control the drug problem, specifically methamphetamine and heroin and touted his efforts to curtail inmate medical costs by contracting out the service. He also talked about the failure of drug court in deterring people from using drugs and said a study is currently underway at the jail to improve mental health treatments.

The sheriff also answered a question about the problem of contraband and security issues at the jail. He admitted there was a problem but stressed those issues are being addressed.

“It is a problem. It’s jail. The folks aren’t in there because they were singing too loud in Sunday School,” he said.  

In response to a question about legalizing marijuana, Simmons said he would leave that to the legislature.

“I don’t have an opinion. Marijuana is illegal right now and those laws should be enforced until they are changed,” he said.

In closing statements, Bennett again stressed his proven track record as sheriff. Boatright promised accessibility, saying to citizens “I’ll be there for you.” Simmons again asked for the opportunity to serve the citizens.

News editor Sarah Gove served as moderator for the forum. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Angela Manders served as timekeeper.

The Times expressed thanks to Emmanuel Baptist Church, Pastor Mike Stone, Media Director Stacy Wells, the media team of the church and the congregation for hosting and for their assistance with the event.

The election will take place Tuesday, June 9. Early voting is  underway now through June 5 at the Courthouse Annex on Nichols Street from 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday voting is set for May 30 from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.

If no candidate receives 50 percent plus one June 9, a run-off election between the top two vote getters will take place Tuesday, August 11.