Pitt County Sheriff-elect Paula Dance
Paula Dance celebrates her election as sheriff of Pitt County. Courtesy of Paula Dance.

Voters in counties across North Carolina selected sheriffs in this week’s elections. Many of them elected new sheriffs.

Despite geographic or political differences, these incoming sheriffs say they face similar challenges when it comes to the opioid epidemic and the increasing cost of running their county jails.

We interviewed three newly elected sheriffs in the eastern, central and western parts of the state about their plans for staffing and policy changes, what they see as shared concerns among the state’s sheriffs and how they plan to address problems that may be unique to their counties.

Paula Dance, Pitt County

Pitt County elected its first African-American woman sheriff Tuesday night, when voters picked Paula Dance, D-Greenville. It also happens to be the first time an African-American woman has won a sheriff’s contest in any county statewide, she said. In her estimation, she’s also one of a handful of the African-American woman sheriffs in the entire country.

Dance has worked in law enforcement for 28 years, according to The East Carolinian, with all but four of them in the Pitt County Sheriff’s Office, which voters have now elected her to lead.

Pitt County is in eastern North Carolina and includes the city of Greenville, home to East Carolina University.

Carolina Public Press: What sorts of changes in policy and personnel do you plan to make?

Paula Dance: I will be using the resources of the people … we have here, who are really qualified to take those positions. There is not going to be a whole lot of changes. There will not be a drastic personnel change. Many of the policies we have in place now are policies I was a part of and agreed with.

CPP: What do you believe are the biggest concerns for sheriffs across North Carolina?

Dance: I think across the country, it would be the same. When we are talking about North Carolina, school security is a big issue. The opioid epidemic is another big issue. … This particular agency does not have body cams. That is something I will be looking at implementing, and policies as they relate to body cams and the use of body cams and trying to finance and get body cams.

CPP: How do the needs of people in Pitt County differ from the state at large, and how do you plan to address those needs?

Dance: Under the leadership of the previous sheriff, crime has gone down. Response time is much faster, and I think there are ways we can make that even better. Otherwise, we face the same issues and problems that surrounding counties face.

CPP: You mentioned during the campaign that you wanted the demographics of the Sheriff’s Office to match your community. How will you accomplish that?

Dance: Sometimes you have communities that are more disenfranchised than others. Typically, African-Americans and Latinos can’t afford to quit their jobs for four months to go through basic law enforcement training. That’s a big hit when you’re talking about needing to take care of financial needs in the home. … I will be looking at ways to try to identify people who may be in that disenfranchised group and get them vetted and ensure they have the ability to get through the law enforcement academy and possibly go ahead and hire those people after vetting them … and then send them to the academy. That way they draw a salary as they are going through the academy.”

Ronnie Fields, Moore County

Moore County voters elected Ronnie Fields to be their new sheriff in 2018. Courtesy of Ronnie Fields.

Voters Tuesday elected Ronnie Fields, R-Carthage, to lead the office he once worked for. Fields has more than 30 years in law enforcement bookended by employment at the Moore County Sheriff’s Office, according to the ThePilot.com.

Fields said he wants to return integrity to the Sheriff’s Office and be a sheriff for all of the residents in Moore County, which is in the Sandhills Region, just south of the state’s geographical center. Moore County includes the village of Pinehurst and is world-famous for its golfing facilities.

CPP: What sorts of changes in policy and personnel do you plan to make?

Ronnie Fields: I will bring in Richard Manness, who has over 30 years of law enforcement experience. He’s a retired captain of the highway patrol and a native of Monroe County. He will be my chief deputy. Maj. Andy Conway, with over 24 years of law enforcement experience and 20-some years at the Sheriff’s Office will be my major of personnel and third in command. … I would like to come in and evaluate the personnel for at least 100 days and get a feel for what they are and what they do and make my decision based on their performance during that time. … I would like to start back with the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), but bring a drug awareness program as well to the teachers.

CPP: What do you believe are the biggest concerns for sheriffs across North Carolina?

Fields: The operation of the jail within our county is one of the biggest headaches within the sheriff’s office. We have a lot of issues with our jail. It’s very important that we get the right command staff, and the right detention leaders. … (For example,) if you get someone who’s sick or has a very serious illness, it can eat up your medical budget right quick. Starting Dec. 1, 2019, we are going to have to start housing our own juveniles, and that’s going to create another issue. They have to be separate and apart from the adult population. … In my county here, we have a rural part in the upper end of Moore County. There’s a serious meth problem, and heroin. My plan to address some of this is enforcement, extra patrols in these areas, forming a drug task force team with local municipalities and federal agencies, and work hand-in-hand to stop the traffickers from bringing drugs within our county.

CPP: How do the needs of people in Moore County differ from the state at large, and how do you plan to address those needs?

Fields: The opioid issue. We’ve got it here. We’ve got to work hard to enforce the violations of the law. … We have to work with these treatment facilities to get people rehabilitated before we put them back out on the street. It’s a sickness and an addiction.”

CPP: During the campaign, you said you wanted to bring integrity back to the office. How do you plan to do that?

Fields: The trust has been broken. It’s been broken all over the state and here in the United States. We have to build this trust back up, and it’s going to be a work in progress. By having an open-door policy and being more accountable as to our actions out here and to explain them. … Always remember, (members of) law enforcement are human. I’ve got grandkids, you know. We want the best for our people out here, too. We are human beings. Like any human being, there’s times when we make mistakes. When we make mistakes, we have to own up to it.

Buncombe County Sheriff-elect Quentin Miller
Buncombe County has elected Quentin Miller its new sheriff. Courtesy of Quentin Miller.

Quentin Miller, Buncombe County

A 25-year veteran of the Asheville Police Department will become Buncombe County’s first African-American sheriff. Quentin Miller, D-Asheville, told the Asheville Citizen Times that he plans to focus on de-escalation training for deputies, jail diversion and increased community interaction. Miller also served 11 years in the U.S. Army as a military police officer.

Buncombe County is the largest county by population in the state’s western mountain region and includes the region’s largest city, Asheville.

CPP: What sorts of changes in policy and personnel do you plan to make?

Quentin Miller: Some of my vision is, how do we look at some type of job-training program at the detention facility? We are looking at diversion programs, things of that nature, to how we can reduce the number of people being held at the detention facility. (Aside from a few command staff, Miller said he doesn’t plan to make immediate staff changes. He also wants to look at policies. So far, he’s heard it costs inmates “a lot of money” to make a phone call from the jail, and he wants to know why and how to reduce that cost.)

CPP: What do you believe are the biggest concerns for sheriffs across North Carolina?

Miller: We cannot arrest our way out of this opiates crisis. I look at that as a sickness. Sometimes arresting people is maybe their first step into getting help. I just think we have to do other things about how to address the opiates crisis from a law enforcement standpoint. … A lot of times we are using the detention facility to house people that have other needs.

CPP: How do the needs of people in Buncombe County differ from the state at large, and how do you plan to address those needs?

Miller: I just think strategies and plans are going to be different for each of the areas. (Miller said he plans to host town hall meetings in each of the three commissioner districts to address the needs of the residents who live there.)

CPP: Your policy platform included stricter gun laws, such as universal background checks for gun show and internet sales, a two-week wait period for gun purchases and getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. How do you plan to advocate for those changes?

Miller: I am in support of the Second Amendment. My real issue is with these assault weapons. I call them weapons of war. I’m talking about the ARs. … I spent time in the military and I trained with the M16. I know that weapon is meant to destroy or kill the enemy. I do think that law enforcement should be the ones with that weapon. I don’t think you should be able to get that as a civilian. … I’ve told people we haven’t had a shooting here in Buncombe County in our schools, but we have to keep in mind that it’s happened all over the country. In the places where it has happened, they didn’t think it was coming, but it did. … (In some cases) we know this person had a problem, but they didn’t go further. I also advocate for more counselors in schools.

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Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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