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Incoming sheriff Griffin eyes body cams, district supervising

Lowell Griffin

Lowell Griffin unseated Charlie McDonald as sheriff in the GOP primary last week, by a large 18 percent margin at 59-41 percent. Griffin got 7,287 votes on Tuesday, May 8.

Griffin spoke in depth to The Tribune about his plans on various priority issues, for when he takes office in a half-year. He said he eyes a new training center but minus an outdoor shooting range, and sees more pressing immediate needs for the sheriff’s budget and services.

For instance, he calls for body cameras on all officers in the field, which was a point of contention with McDonald. They both want more school resource officers — and preferably from ranks of regular staff.

Griffin is planning a restructure with supervisors for areas of the county, which he said would be a first in Henderson. He said incorporated areas of the county deserve sheriff’s patrol too to a regular extent, but should pay for extra coverage such as in high-traffic business zones.

He campaigned in part for greater continuation of staff under a new sheriff. He told The Tribune restructuring may move some out of their current posts, but rather than be let go he would look to transfer them to areas where they could contribute more.

Meantime, McDonald concludes his six years as sheriff in December. That is when his successor is sworn in at the commissioners’ meeting after the general election of Nov. 6. Technically, the sheriff’s race is not decided until then. Two other GOP primary winners also loom prohibitively as victors in November. That is unless a write-in candidate emerges and bucks odds, since there are no Democrat or Libertarian candidates for their offices.

District Attorney Greg Newman got over two-thirds of the vote to decisively defeat Mary Ann Hollocker in the GOP primary.

In a much closer race, Rebecca McCall beat Don Ward by 329 votes (6,104-5,775 votes), getting 51.4 percent of the GOP primary vote, for commissioner in District 4 in the Edneyville area.

In a Democratic primary, Pat Sheley rolled over Michelle Antalec with 71 percent of the vote. She will take on Commission Chr. Mike Edney, in the county-wide vote Nov. 6 for the District 1 seat for the Flat Rock area.

Griffin, 52, a 1984 Edneyville High grad, reacted to his upset win in his first public election. It “felt like I was hit by a truck,” he said Thursday when back to work as an operations captain in Polk County. He supervises narcotics investigations under Sheriff Donald Hill, who is soon retiring.

Griffin was a Henderson County deputy then supervisor in various divisions for 20 total years, in 1992-2012. He was a specialized instructor, inaugural county bomb squad member, and incident commander who coordinated with rescue units.

“Patrol is exciting, and the backbone of the county. You are the first line of defense, the first one responding to any emergency. I enjoyed tactical training, being on the explosives and investigative teams. But when you dial 911, patrol is usually what gives you help.”

The sheriff’s race marked a rare time in the county that a sitting sheriff was voted out of office — and in the primary, to boot. Ab Jackson, who hired both of the latest candidates, was beaten by George Erwin in 1994.

But a productive transition is anticipated. Griffin said he spoke with McDonald on election night May 8. “We had a very cordial call. We agreed we’ll start soon, for the transition. I have every reason to believe Sheriff McDonald will make this as painless as can be.”

Griffin figures that by late September, he can “focus completely” on sheriff matters here. That is after he organizes security for the World Equestrian Games that run in Polk County, for two weeks in September. Meanwhile in coming weeks, he said, he will use accumulated comp time with some of that pertaining to Henderson County.

The most explosive issue in sheriff and commissioner races has been plans for a new outdoor law enforcement training facility and noise of outdoor shooting. The cost of up to $22.5 million was another issue.

First and foremost, McDonald’s defeat was deemed a trigger for county commissioners to abandon plans the current sheriff supported to build a new outdoor training center for incident tactical maneuvers and with a firing range. That is apt to happen this week.

Commissioners met Wednesday morning, May 16. That is a mere week before the May 23 deadline to buy the land by Saluda eyed for the project. After then, the property is back on the open market. Nearby residents rallied against the site due to what they thought would be excessive noise and traffic.

“Given the long-term design and implementation process of a ‘Law Enforcement Training Center’ project, in consultation with Chairman (Mike) Edney,” County Mgr. Steve Wyatt stated in a memo, “it is my recommendation that further work on the project be suspended until the incoming sheriff assesses and determines the overall needs of the department.”

Wyatt added about Sheriff-elect Griffin “it is our duty and responsibility to work with him, within our resources, to help him accomplish the mission of the sheriff’s department to protect and serve our citizens.”

Griffin does not foresee an outdoor range as part of any new facility in this county, but sees value in training tactically outdoors. “We have to step back to the chalkboard, and take a long hard look at exactly what we need, what it’d cost and take logistically,” Griffin said of a training facility. “We need to look at the real options in our region. It should be multi-dimensional to assist not only law enforcement but also train fire, EMS and rescue responders.”

He said a training facility can best be afforded as a regional one, bringing in revenue from area agencies for using it and perhaps educational and other state money to help construct it.

“I have ideas for a training center concept,” he further told The Tribune. “Blue Ridge Community College would be the perfect place” such as on its ballfield, since it no longer has athletic teams. “We need a partner. It could be under the control of the college. Education is what they do. First responders typically attend community college basically tuition-free. But the college gets reimbursed for the training” by state community college money. A training facility there would be “strengthening our community college, and our community” through better-trained officers.

Fee revenue comes in “if we develop something other agencies would travel to, to use.” In turn in area collaboration, local officers could go to existing area outdoor ranges to avoid building one here. He cited “state of the art outdoor ranges” he has satisfactorily used such as two in Rutherford County, and another in Greenville (S.C.) County. “There are outdoor ranges very close we could use.”

Private businesses can also be used, he reasons. He noted that already, many officers hone their aim in Rex’s Indoor Range off of Upward Road near I-26 as well as in the WNC Justice Academy’s indoor range in Edneyville.

Griffin’s priorities include adding “dedicated” school resource officers (SRO) for “strengthening school security.” Several school board members and candidates call for resource officers in all schools. SROs went first into all four high schools in the county, then some middle and elementary schools.

Griffin said existing county money can go for school security which is saved from a smaller-scaled training facility or holding off on one for now. Beyond more SROs, he said other steps include “re-engineering existing facilities to maximize security needs, and adding or updating camera systems.”

A new federal program is calling for SRO training for non-current officers, too, such as retired police and military.

U.S. Rep Mark Meadows, the local congressman, introduced two bills in March to pay for more armed school resource officers in schools to deter and protect against violent outbreaks. His latest Protect America’s Schools Act adds $1.5 million to the Community Oriented Policing Services’ School Resource Officer (SRO) program nationwide.

His new Veterans Securing Schools Act authorizes a state or local agency to better cut through red tape to hire military veterans as SROs stationed at schools. Meadows stated the two bills “provide schools both adequate resources and trained personnel” as “common-sense solutions to safeguard our children in school.”

Griffin cautions against ‘just sticking someone (a trained retiree) in there, with a patch on them calling them ‘security.’ At some point, we may consider supplemental security such as volunteers to assist officers in a school. I can see that” for those meeting strong security skill and standards such as eye-hand coordination and keeping cool while swiftly reacting to a crisis.

“I very much prefer an actual officer into the school,” Griffin said. “It will require extreme vetting” for SROs. “They have to interact with the kids, and not be an intimidating factor. SROs become part of school culture. Many form a bond with students, and are adult role models.”

Doing so takes an enhanced combination of communication skills, along with proficiency as an officer. He reasons it is tough for retired officers or military away from the rigors for years to “connect with the students, and identify with their problems. A trained resource officer can identify issues that may be arising in a child’s life at home.”

Griffin is sensitive to the wishes of county and school officials. “I as a sheriff cannot just appoint somebody to walk into a school. Whatever the school board and administration want for school security, we need to work collaboratively to make that happen.”

Body cameras was a major campaign issue for Griffin, as part of the broader issue of greater transparency of actions. He wants to require officers wear body cameras for any public interaction. That can secure up-close evidence such as a view of illegal guns and substances in a car. He said Hendersonville police and many nearby counties use body cams, but not yet Henderson County. “They’re deployed all around us, in many different versions.”

A fascinating task is choosing what type of body cam system to use here, and weighing amenities versus costs. One way is to “integrate with the in-car camera.” For instance, anytime the officer turns on the car’s emergency flashers and/or sirens, the system is set to automatically turn on both the in-car camera and body camera. “It stays activated, throughout the interaction.” Not having to manually start the camera enables the officer to focus on other crisis tasks.

Yet on top of auto-activation, many systems have an on/off switch for the body cam for the officer to use. This is good when flashers or other auto-triggers do not happen. The tricky part is accountability. The officer could flip off the camera, in theory only after finishing the interaction in order to avoid wasting tape. This has to be “in accordance to policy,” Griffin said, and not to avoid incriminating evidence.

Storage of video can be on a costlier in-house server, or “cloud-based” over the Internet, Griffin noted. The system “cost fluctuates wildly. If you buy their cloud storage, some nearly give you the equipment.” Costs are more for newer tech, and dropping in time, Griffin said. “Technology has come so far” and ironically Henderson can get state-of-the-art systems by buying body cam systems after other counties do.

The video oversight works both on the investigating/arresting officer, and the person checked out such as in a traffic stop or at a residence. All involved would be monitored by the body camera for sight and sound, in addition to existing in-car camera filming.

Griffin speaks from experience on this issue. “I have cameras on a few officers in Polk, including (drug) interdiction officers. It shows the actual abuse an officer may take leading up to an arrest or use of force.” That can deter outbursts, he reasons. “People should realize what you’re saying and your very actions are going to be captured. We can replay exactly what has happened” in court.

He said a body cam offsets a rising trend of suspects or others nearby recording on a smart phone. “I don’t want our officers to be exposed. I don’t want the suspect to go to court with better video evidence.”

Footage is a good step toward prosecution, augmenting solid policing, Griffin said. “Nothing is perfect. Attorneys have attempted to challenge videos. It all comes back to the interpretation, by the judge or jurors.”

Whether or not on film, the “interaction should be professional, from start to finish,” he said. “The officer should not be acting for the camera. The officer has to be extra vigilant, to document everything. These videos are not held to the same standard as an officer is required to be.” He said there are apparent instances when “the suspect has edited video, or shown an excerpt taken out of context.”

As for McDonald’s caution that an officer might be overly-cautious if on film up close, Griffin countered that “officers are used to being on video, as long as they are in front of their car. Already, every patrol car has an in-car camera.” The body cam would cover a fuller area, and beyond the stopping point such as on-foot pursuits.

A bonus is the officer can better relax, if also equipped with a recorder. A suspect “might attempt to be intimidating, telling the officer that they’ll put him on video,” Griffin said. “The officer says ‘I have no problem with that, because I’m capturing it on video myself.’ That prevents it from escalating” in tensions.

New sheriffs can terminate at will (without proving cause), and tend to clean house to varying extents after election. Griffin campaigned in part to do much less of that. He said he wants to give benefit of doubt, and look at options. “‘What’s right for the county’ is the first question I have to ask” in a personnel decisions. One factor for retaining an officer on the bubble is “the county has invested much money into these folks,” and would have to spend to train replacements. Another is officers “have real problems, and bills to pay. I want to do everything I can for them.”

Thus before terminating, he would “look first at the possibility of re-assignment. See if they can prove to me they are truly an asset. I don’t anticipate many” departures, he added. “but in reorganizing the department, some may face a different job assignment.”

First in reorganizing, he wants to instill “district supervisors” for various areas of the county. That setup is used elsewhere. Supervisors such as lieutenants and perhaps even captains would spend some time on patrol for community policing to boost relations with citizens and gain insights, he said. “I want to redirect some energy within the walls, to outside and put some supervisors back out into the community.”

This includes incorporated areas such as Flat Rock and Mills River which do not at least yet have police as do Hendersonville, Fletcher and Laurel Park. On one hand, he said, “we should not force these municipalities to ante up for public safety” at a level comparable to unincorporated areas. They deserve a “standard patrol format like the rest of the county.”

But he said it is sensible for those towns to pay more for extra service, at a level and cost agreed on. “We should sit down. We have to look at crime rates, population to be covered and other variables. Mills River has a growing business district. If they want coverage over and above what the rest of the county gets, then the town has to be (financially) responsible for that.” Griffin said in negotiating service and fees, “I definitely want to be reasonable.”

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