Candidate forums end with Steve Smith and Brooks Taylor

By Susan Gibbs

Sheriff Steve Smith

Sheriff Steve Smith

Incumbent Greene County Sheriff Steve Smith and his challenger, retired State Trooper Brooks Taylor, answered questions before more than 100 people at the candidates forum held at Piedmont Virginia Community College’s Eugene Giuseppe Center Wednesday, October 7.

The event was co-sponsored by the Greene County Chamber of Commerce and the Charlottesville Area League of Women Voters.

Smith, who was elected to his first four-year term in November 2011, is a Greene County native and William Monroe High School graduate who went on to serve his country as a United States Marine.

Prior to winning the last election, he was a master deputy with the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office, and before that an associate instructor with Virginia Justice & Safety Associates. He has worked for the Albemarle County Police Department, the Fluvanna County Sheriff’s Office and, under Sheriff Willie Morris, the Greene County Sheriff’s Office.

After taking office as sheriff of Greene County, Smith implemented a planning and programs division and made it responsible for researching or developing, and then implementing approaches to criminal justice, public safety and emergency preparedness issues.

Sheriff’s office programs active in Greene County include: Internet Crimes Against Children; Offender-Work Program; Assign-A-Highway Project; Volunteers in Police Services; Community Emergency Response Teams; USA On Watch; Refuse To Be A Victim; TRIAD; Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program; Youth Outreach and Faith-Based Support; a Ride-Along Program, a Student Internship Program, and Auxiliary/Reserve Program, a Child ID program, and the Citizen Criminal Justice Academy.

Smith has reportedly said that, if re-elected, he plans to keep the programs in place that were established during his term, as well as to continue community outreach and involvement.

Taylor is a multi-generational Greene County native and a former volunteer firefighter who has worn a badge for 15 years, as a deputy in both Fluvanna and Greene counties, and then as a Virginia State Police officer for more than 10 years.

He retired from the state police in late March of this year to prepare for his campaign.

Taylor still holds the state high school record for the longest touchdown pass—99 yards. In his senior year he was awarded the Virginia’s Sheriff’s Association scholarship to pursue a career in law enforcement.

Taylor has said that a modern sheriff’s office must keep up with vehicle maintenance, manage sophisticated computer systems and stay up to date with the best approaches for dealing with our citizens who suffer from mental illness. It must also manage a multimillion dollar budget; know how to get a stray cow out of the road, and to understand that some county residents have not had the best experience with law enforcement in the past.

Brooks Taylor

Brooks Taylor

Soon after announcing his candidacy last spring, Taylor said he intends to improve Greene County’s efforts in several areas: leadership and integrity, proactive policing, fiscal responsibility, traffic safety and crime reduction. He said that in particular, he is concerned with the county’s overall crime rate, which is as much as double that of its neighbors. He has identified assaults and drug-related crimes as needing special attention; to be brought under control with modern methods including coordination with local organizations to reduce crime-breeding situations.

Both candidates were asked 13 questions. In addition, three questions were addressed to Smith alone, and two were addressed to Taylor alone.

The first question asked of both was: If elected, what changes would you make in the way the sheriff’s office is run?

Taylor noted that he had “thousands of hours of training,” with hundreds of those hours dedicated to leadership training, gained while teaching at the Virginia State Police Academy and working with new graduates in the areas of staff development and leadership. He said he would bring leadership, transparency and accountability to the office. “I will lead by example and put the right people in appropriate positions … there are good people in the office who will flourish under my leadership,” Taylor said. He stressed the importance of transparency and accountability, saying, “If we make a mistake, admit it.”

Smith said that in the four years he has been in office he has instituted 24 new programs and will continue to build on programs. He said there has been a 20 percent reduction in crimes since he took office, and that the office has a 67 percent clearance rate on all incidents this year.

The second question asked of both was: Why did you choose to run under the titles of Republican and Independent?

Smith said that his core values are Republican, but that he would treat everyone equally.

Taylor said that he was raised as a conservative but is an independent. “I think all elected officials should run as independents,” he said.

The third question asked of both was: What is the greatest threat facing Greene County today and what will you do to deal with it?

Taylor said that the biggest problem facing the county today is drugs, especially heroin. Statistically, he said, there are one and a half drug-related deaths in Virginia per day.

Reports indicate that heroin is the king of the addiction mountain, so destructive to minds and bodies and lives that some medical specialists actually choose to treat heroin addicts by encouraging them to become dependent on another drug that can take its place. Opiates like heroin are able to connect with a number of receptors throughout the body, recreating the effects of soothing endorphins and ultimately causing an extreme form of dependency that is associated with intense withdrawal symptoms. It is said that heroin addicts would kill or steal or sell their own children if that was what it took to get their next fix. About 25 percent of all people who try heroin end up addicted to it.

Taylor said that what follows addiction is crime: “Breaking and entering, larceny, assault … we need to stop it from coming into the county; to be proactive.”

Smith said there is no one problem; that drugs are a problem along with people driving under the influence (DUI). He pointed out that his office has “done a very good job.”

The fourth question asked of both referred to the rise in gun violence. The candidates were asked what specific steps they thought could be taken to prevent it here.

Smith said we should “enforce the laws we already have.”

Taylor agreed. “We can’t punish people for having guns,” he said. “Criminals are going to find weapons … we need to enforce what we have and work with (those suffering from) mental illness.

The fifth question asked of both had to do with smart guns, and whether or not the candidates thought they were a good idea.

According to Wikipedia, a “smart gun”, or “personalized gun”, is a firearm that only fires when activated by an authorized user, in order to prevent misuse, accidental shootings, gun thefts, use of the weapon against the owner, and self-harm. Smart guns distinguish between authorized users and unauthorized users in several different ways, including the use of Radio-frequency identification chips or other proximity tokens, fingerprint recognition, magnetic rings, or mechanical locks.

Taylor said he thinks it is a good, albeit impractical, idea. He asked listeners to imagine walking in the cold wearing gloves and carrying a gun that relied on fingerprint recognition to work, when danger struck—or to imagine depending on a token not within reach with someone broke into their home.

Smith said that “none (of the devices) work.”

The sixth question asked of both was: What is the most difficult or dangerous situation that (a law enforcement officer) can encounter?

Smith mentioned “domestic disturbances,” detaining the mentally ill and civil issues which required the taking of property.

Taylor said that just putting on a uniform or wearing a badge these days could be dangerous. “We have to stay vigilant. We can’t be complacent. We need to train, train, and train some more.”

The seventh question asked of both referenced the shootings of unarmed people that have taken place on a national level over the past year to year and a half, as well as the shooting of police officers. The candidates were asked if they were proponents of an active community relations effort involving, perhaps, crisis intervention.

Taylor said that he believes strongly in community outreach. “We need to introduce ourselves to the community,” … to residents and business owners … to stop by and say “Hi.”

Smith said he is a proponent of crisis intervention. “We have to decide who goes to a hospital and who goes to jail. He also believes strongly in community outreach.

The eighth question asked of both referenced the fact that the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The candidates were asked if they supported paroling non-violent offenders.

Smith said it would be hard to say without knowing what type of nonviolent offense was committed.

Taylor agreed, saying he would have to know the background of the prisoners.

The ninth question asked of both was: What can you do to bring citizens together?

Taylor said that events bring people together, but he would also get to know people on a personal level and develop trust. “It’s hard work, but we can all do that, not just law enforcement,” he concluded.

Smith noted that he had brought the community together: “We’ve built a relationship with the community,” he said. “We have done a tremendous job bringing the community together.”

The tenth question asked of both had to do with whether or not the sheriff should be held to the same standards, or even higher standards, than the citizens of the county. In a direct reference to the $8,000 in damage done to Smith’s county-owned Chevrolet Tahoe SUV last spring, candidates were asked if they thought the accident should have been investigated when it happened.

According to reports, Smith said he was checking out a report of a spring burn-ban violation at a house under construction off Preddy Creek Road on Friday, April 24 about 8:30 am. Thinking he had put the vehicle in park, he got out to check out the report only to realize that the Tahoe was moving. Smith said he was unable to catch the SUV, and it went off the driveway and struck a tree.

The vehicle was taken to Ace Collision Center in Madison for repairs, its decals were removed, and the incident was reported to the county administration office on Monday, April 27. According to County Administrator John Barkley, it’s up the sheriff’s office where to take the vehicle for repair, but the county’s insurance provider advises that any accidents or damages be reported within 24 hours—this applies to all agencies and constitutional offices covered under Greene County’s insurance policy. In addition, unless they are somehow involved in the claim, no other state or county agencies have to be notified if a county vehicle is damaged, he said.

At the time, Smith reportedly explained that “nothing was trying to be covered up. It was an accident.”

At the forum, Smith offered the same explanation, saying that “It happened … I responded to a call. I left the vehicle in drive and it rolled down the hill. I took the decals off because I didn’t want them stolen.”

Taylor said it is policy that state police investigate accidents … the state police were not notified … that’s a criminal offense … what example does that set?”

The eleventh question asked of both was how the candidates would deal with corruption in their offices.

Taylor said, “It needs to be dealt with swiftly.”

Smith said, “It will not be tolerated. It was (tolerated before) I took office, but there is nothing going on now.”

The twelfth question asked of both was: Can you cut down on paperwork and spend more time in the community?

Smith said, “No. Things are going very good the way they are.”

Taylor did not answer the question directly but said he plans to examine paperwork every morning and that he will call victims himself to ensure quality control.

The thirteenth question asked of both was about a four-year-old student that was removed from his Pre-K class at Nathanael Greene Primary School on October 16 of last year. Could it have been done in a better way?

According to reports the student, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, threw blocks, climbed over desks, hit, and scratched and kicked the principal and the director of special education. William Monroe Middle School Resource Officer Jason Tooley was summoned, and the student was handcuffed and taken to the sheriff’s office in a squad car. There, according to a report by the Rutherford Institute—a nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville that represented the child—he was shackled and forced to talk to inmates as part of a scared straight approach. The Institute said the Greene County Sheriff’s Department response was excessive, unwarranted, and unnecessarily traumatizing.

The incident was not reported until December. At the time, Smith took issue with it, saying that the public and the Greene County school system have received incorrect information regarding incident. Smith says the boy never talked to inmates and is defending his deputies over the incident. He said that no inmates were at the sheriff’s office when the child was transported there and maintained that Tooley’s actions were to keep the child and teachers at the school safe. Smith said at the time that the mother of the child hugged Tooley and told him she was appreciative of the way he handled the situation.

The Rutherford Institute asked Greene County schools to assure everyone that this sort of thing will not happen again to students of a similar age. The institute was adamant in its letter to the school system’s superintendent that the pre-school student be re-admitted to the pre-K program and that the incident be removed from his record.

At the forum October 7 Smith said, “If it was a problem it would have been brought to my attention. Five adults had to call the deputy (Tooley) … The deputy did not want to harm him (to restrain him in a way that might lead to a broken bone) … he did what he had to do; the mother thanked the deputy and gave him a hug. I applaud the deputy.”

Taylor said it was unfortunate that the incident was not reported for two months, that it had made the national news, and added, “We’re going to get sued.” He said that if he had been sheriff he would have been in a meeting the next day with the superintendent of schools and the commonwealth’s attorney. He said that he had not heard anyone say that we need to make sure this does not happen again.

The first question asked of Smith alone was: If you are re-elected will you make any significant personnel changes?

Smith did not answer the question directly, but said that his office was in the process of becoming accredited, which would mean the county would be charged at a lower rate—though he did not say what that charge would be for.

According to the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services Web site, located at https://www.dcjs.virginia.gov/accred/, the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission (VLEPSC), which is made up of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, establishes professional standards and administers the accreditation process by which Virginia agencies can be systematically measured, evaluated, and updated.

The Commission’s goals are to: increase the effectiveness and efficiency of law enforcement agencies through the delivery of services; promote cooperation among all components in the criminal justice system; ensure the appropriate level of training for law enforcement personnel; promote public confidence in law enforcement; and promote the professionalism of law enforcement agencies.

The accreditation process requires an in-depth review of every aspect of the agency’s organization, management, operations, and administration to include: the establishment of agency goals and objectives with provisions for periodic updating; an evaluation of whether agency resources are being used in accord with agency goals, objectives, and mission; an evaluation of agency policies and procedures, especially as documented in the agency’s written directive system; and the opportunity to correct internal deficiencies and inefficiencies before they become public problems, as well as the opportunity to reorganize without the appearance of personal attacks.

Once accreditation is earned, operations become more streamlined and consistent. Accreditation policies address officer safety issues and provide for adequate training and equipment of the officers.

The second question asked of Smith alone was: How do you justify a deputy having to (be tested with) a breathalyzer?

Smith said he did not know what the moderator was talking about.

The third question asked of Smith alone was: Why do you give money back to the county and apply for grants?

Smith did not answer the question directly, but said that his office is “tight with money all the time” and is “actively seeking grants all the time.”

The first question asked of Taylor alone was: Will you keep all the programs started by Sheriff Smith?

Taylor said that “a lot of the programs are not all the way complete … I will prioritize … take the top five and make sure they are complete. Brochures say they exist, but they are not operational.”

The second question asked of Taylor alone was: What makes you more qualified (than Smith) for sheriff?

Taylor cited his experience with the Virginia State Police, his leadership and management training, his experience with hit and runs, felonies, and has supervised state troopers at major events. He also noted his experience as a deputy sheriff, and said that it had taught him the ins and outs of a sheriff’s office.

Editor’s note: Smith’s achievements, his certifications and training, can be viewed at http://www.greenecountysheriffva.com/. For more information about Taylor, visit www.BrooksTaylor.org.

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