McDonald touts in-county drug enforcement, budgeting


Sheriff Charlie McDonald


By Pete Zamplas-Henderson County Sheriff Charlie McDonald said although he pulled drug interdiction agents from a revenue-garnishing area force, his department remains effective in catching drug offenders in this county.

The sheriff clarified such matters with The Tribune, right after drug enforcement was a hot topic in a GOP-sponsored candidate’s forum last Thursday in Opportunity House. McDonald became sheriff mid-term, in March 2012, after Rick Davis’ departure. McDonald, state trooper Michael Brown and Fletcher Police Chief Erik Summey are on the GOP primary ballot. The winner faces unopposed Democrat Marty Katz, a retired Broward County, Fla. deputy.

The value of drug arrest-affiliated cash and property seizures soared four times over in McDonald’s two years at the helm, he said, rising from $48,398 in 12 months ending March 2012 up to a year-long total of $200,227 as of this month. He said biggest cases and assets typically “go federal.”

The county no longer supplies two officers in joint drug interdiction, mostly on I-40 and I-26 in Buncombe County. McDonald acknowledged there can be major revenue shares, among reasons Brown urges rejoining the area squad.

But McDonald told The Tribune “it gets dicey, when you’re driven by profit. We need to be in drug enforcement to stem the tide of illegal drugs.” He is hesitant to “use our officers mostly in another county, ‘trolling’ for money. They hit some good licks,” referring to a handful of major busts. “But I want to utilize drug interdiction in my county, and let the Highway Patrol handle the interstates.” He said at the forum “we do some highway (drug) interdiction.”

He said fighting drugs is a “very high priority,” and eases property crime. He had installed a permanent pill drop box, to discard surplus/expired medicines to keep them away from addicts.

One of the two former area interdiction officers left the department, and was not replaced, McDonald said. The other officer remains. He and his police dog are in in-county drug enforcement.

Henderson County has six drug enforcement agents, McDonald told The Tribune. The sheriff (filling most of his 12 slots) and Hendersonville Police (with four) staff the city-county Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) team. This unit is mobilized for such crises as raiding a drug den with armed suspects. The sheriff was criticized by rivals for a lengthy hiring practice. He said though some SWAT slots are yet to be filled, “we’re not going to lower our standards” and will patiently and effectively hire.

Drug enforcement coordinates with such agencies as Hendersonville Police, State Bureau of Investigation, federal Drug Enforcement Agency and Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

A related topic is law enforcement of suspected illegal immigrants, including drug offenders. McDonald said he carries on Davis’ toughness on pursuing and arresting anyone for violent and drug crimes, among offenses. And he clamps down on those showing false identification, who turn up in criminal record checks as prior offenders.

Some see less zeal than in Davis’ time in ticketing aliens for relatively minor offenses, such as driving without a license. “Our agricultural business relies heavily on undocumented workers. We have them here,” McDonald said, echoing his rivals to the chagrin of many Tea Party faithful. “We (i.e. in local farming and landscaping sectors) invite them here. Yet we arrest them for driving without a license.” He added he feels uncomfortable about such arrests getting hard workers deported, in contrast to getting rid of drug dealers.

A recent state law enables illegal immigrants to get driver’s permits, requiring the usual proof of insurance and passing written and driving tests. McDonald explained “they can drive if their ID is valid, if they are who they say they are.” He said “I may step into a hornet’s nest. But immigration is the federal government’s problem. They’re passing the buck” to local agencies to enforce codes, tying up resources.

School Resource Officers (SRO) is another hot campaign topic. There is debate on how extensively to use them, and whether they should remain only deputies or include trained volunteers. There is one SRO deputy in each of the four local high schools, in most middle schools, and now in some elementaries, McDonald said. He has repeatedly sought money from the county for two more SROs, but “we’re restricted by real budget constraints.”

Brown wants to staff SROs with trained former military or law enforcement people, as the state now permits. McDonald told The Tribune that it can be challenging to find a retired law agent still up to physical (i.e. eye-hand coordination, reaction time) rigors to be school-wide protector, let alone to deal with youth rebelliousness despite training to do so. On top of rustiness is potential emotional “baggage” after years of stressful law enforcement or military service, he told The Tribune. “It’s hard enough to keep all of our officers up to standards,” he said at the forum. “Imagine how it is putting a (non-officer) armed person in a school. That’s a tremendous responsibility.” So far, retirees and other sheriff volunteers are unarmed on duty, though trained to detect crises and call for help.

Further, even law officers in prime years are not fool-proof. The SRO deputy at Balfour Education Center, a 27-year-old married man, was fired by the sheriff’s department in January for misconduct. This was after his arrest on three felony counts of sex offense, allegedly with a Balfour female student in October. It is illegal in this state for authority figures in schools to have sexual contact with students, whether consensual or not. The sheriff said at the time the case “sickened” him.

McDonald said the prime job is to “respond” to emergencies such as in schools, rather than have armed patrol as prevention. He said a prime way to boost response is training school personnel in detecting emerging threats, and promptly reporting them. He said an ultimate model is in Israel, where most citizens are trained on civil alertness. McDonald created a Citizens Preparedness Division. When retired for nearly two years before becoming sheriff, he was a State Department-affiliated contract counter-terrorism/crises response instructor for many companies in the Middle East and South America.

He created Adopt-a-School, greatly increasing officers’ school contacts during shifts. They typically walk in halls to make a presence, and talk with teachers. Dropping in unannounced is a key tactic, the sheriff said.

As far as challengers’ ideas to expand patrol or SROs, he said “If we get extra (county) money to spend, I’ll gladly decide where it goes.” Otherwise, he said, he does not want to boost his budget to the point it prompts increasing the county tax rate.

McDonald touted his budgeting. A cost-saving example is getting squad cars painted white on doors, but no longer also on top. “We have to do more with less” funding, amidst recessionary times, McDonald said. He got a $3.6 million grant to upgrade and relocate the 911 Center.

McDonald is in his first election. Commissioners appointed him, after he won votes of the 45-person county GOP central committee. Davis went on medical disability, resigning amidst various scandals. “I came in here under some very tough circumstances,” McDonald said. He said he has “restored public respect and accountability. It starts from the top.” He said staff morale is up, though challengers dispute that. He added, “I have tremendous belief in ethics and integrity.” He set up a Professional Standards Division to advise on personnel and recruiting, filling it with eight staffers who also work in other areas.

He began with the department in 1985, hired by then-Sheriff Albert Jackson. McDonald’s posts include as Criminal Investigations chief, drug agent, SWAT member, jail captain, training lieutenant, and internal affairs investigator. The Navy veteran is 58. Charlie and Jennie McDonald have four children, and four grandchildren.

The sheriff has legal, at-will hiring/firing power. New sheriffs often hire new top administrators. He claimed there was too much “good ole boy” promotion of people mainly for longevity, resulting in “total lack of accountability.” He also let go “underminers,” among others.

He quipped at the GOP forum that for a quarter-century, he was not a “yes man” nor aspired to be the county’s top cop. “I’d talk about the ‘idiots’ who ran the department.” He now sees it from the other side. He joked “now I’m the ‘idiot,’ who’s running the operation.” He said he formed his inner circle with people sharing his “values, vision and goals.” As for his full staff, “you have to get people to buy into your vision.”

Sheriff McDonald said he has made bold and at times unpopular decisions, such as in prioritizing resources. “As sheriff you have to have integrity and character to step up, and do the right thing.”

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