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There's a new sheriff in town: How the local elections could have constitutional implications

Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland hosted a Back The Blue Rally in Franklin in 2020.
Lilly Knoepp
Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland hosted a Back The Blue Rally in Franklin in 2020.

In the Western North Carolina region, eight long-time sheriffs aren’t seeking reelection. Voters in Avery, Cherokee, Clay, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Transylvania and Rutherford counties will elect a new sheriff in the midterm election.

BPR talked with retiring sheriffs and reformers about what this turnover means for the region and the future of law enforcement.

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland has been sheriff since 2002 - now he’s retiring.

In his office there is a picture of Holland as juvenile officer shaking hands with Former President George Bush when Bush was campaigning for his son in 2000.

Sheriff Holland shared this timeline of all 26 sheriffs that have served in Macon County.
Courtesy of Robert Holland
Sheriff Holland shared this timeline of all 26 sheriffs that have served in Macon County.

I was in my early twenties. I was a baby. That was a long time ago,” said Holland.

He’s says that he has seen the job grow in his three decades in law enforcement.

“Gosh, looking back at, you know, through my career, there's been lots of changes. I can remember a time where when your patrol car broke down, you used your personal vehicle to get through the week until you could have your patrol car fixed. Computers – I was one of the first ones to have a computer in the agency as an officer,” said Holland.

Professionalization, and more technology have been increasingly a part of law enforcement reform.

For example, in 2020, the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association recommended reforms such as recruitment, certification, use of force procedures and the creation of an employment database meant to weed out officers with performance issues before they move to a new department was also implemented. They issued an updated report on reforms this year.

“Every day things change. What might work yesterday may not work today, and you've got to look at different ways to handle those things. I think that the standards that they're coming up with, they're good,” said Holland.

While some things change, the position of sheriff has always been political.That side of the sheriff’s role was highlighted in 2020 when the Second Amendment sanctuary movement hit North Carolina.

The resolutions were put forward across the South in part because of gun control legislation moving through the Virginia General Assembly. Cherokee County was one of the first counties to become a “sanctuary” in 2019. The designation is largely symbolic and promises to uphold the Second Amendment rights of citizens.

In Macon County, the debate lasted three months. Holland calls it an important moment in his career. He provided the county commissioners with a version of the resolution from the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association which he said did not conflict with the Constitution.

“I've already taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, which includes the Second Amendment. One of the major issues that I had with signing this oath for the Second Amendment ... it wasn't the oath that I take for office. It was only a portion of that oath,” Holland. “And so I had legal advisors outside of Macon County that were giving me advice that you need to understand that if you're signing an oath, a new oath, then you could be null and voiding your oath that you've already taken.”

Macon County ultimately passed a resolution protecting the U.S. Constitution, N.C. Constitution and all other laws.

In Haywood County, Sheriff Greg Christopher took a similar stance.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher has been in law enforcement for four decades.
Cory Vaillancourt
Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher has been in law enforcement for four decades.

“I lean on the North Carolina Sheriff's association to help guide myself as well as our other sheriffs here in North Carolina when it comes to anything constitutional,” said Christopher. “But especially that second amendment, which is very valid for a lot of people, they do have some valid concerns.

Haywood ultimately passed a similar Constitutional protection resolution.

Christopher, a Democrat, is also retiring after more than four decades in law enforcement.

Two Democrats and three Republicans will run their own Primary Election campaigns in hopes of replacing him. Of the five, two are current employees of the HCSO, one is a former employee and former interim sheriff, and the other two have significant law enforcement experience in Buncombe County. He has this advice for those running:

“Our motto here, when it comes to community relations has been, we want to know our communities before we need to know our communities,” said Christopher.

Meanwhile in Macon, all five candidates are Republicans. No Democrats filed for the seat, making the Primary Election all-important. Three out of the five candidates in Macon County’s Primary Election are current officers at the sheriff’s office. Holland says he will be happy if any of those three are elected.

The Second Amendment is a key issue for candidates and groups who want local law enforcement to have more power.

One national group, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, wants local sheriffs to assert constitutional powers even over those of the president.

The group believes in zero gun control, no federally-owned land in states and more. This is founded in the CSPOA’s contention that “The vertical separation of powers in the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.”

Christopher says there are reasons for gun permitting laws despite Second Amendment rights.

“One of the things that sheriffs across our state are dealing with constantly is people who want to carry a pistol or to buy a pistol or to have a conceal pistol. And then we have to determine, whether from a mental health standpoint, if they need to do that - or not - for the safety of all of our citizens,” said Christopher.

“We have to protect our citizens and mental health is a huge issue for us, especially here in North Carolina, with the lack of mental health facilities that we have,” he said.

Christopher’s point that sheriffs must consider mental health is a part of an opposing view to the constitutional association.

These conversations about other law enforcement reform spread across the county in 2020 and continue to be an important political topic.

During last month’s State of the Union, President Joe Biden explained that he wants to “fully fund police.”

"We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police. Fund them with resources and training they need to protect our communities,” said Biden.

Biden proposed federal budget for 2023 includes more than $24 billion for law enforcement centered programs and even more for research on gun violence, mental health services and other services.

These reforms are currently being hashed out by local governments like Buncombe County.

Rob Thomas of the Racial Justice Coalition in Asheville has been working on law enforcement reform since 2019. He says the organization advocates to re- invest some police funding into community services.

“The one sentence that I would try to use is: Would you try to build an entire house with just a hammer. We try to look at law enforcement as a blanket solution for a lot of our social problems in America,” said Thomas.

Thomas says that it feels like the momentum of change in 2020 has stalled.

“I think people have forgotten what inspired the attention and focus on law enforcement in the first place and the individuals that didn’t appreciate the changes that we made are gaining their platform back,” said Thomas.

“I think the thing that made so much change in 2020 is that people were able to see the injustice and the deaths and see how this has been happening for a while and it hasn’t been personalized. I think that the only way we are going to get back where we were is if we are able to specific stories about how specific policies, specific things and specific power held by specific individuals creates massive ripples in individual lives within the community,” said Thomas.

Law enforcement reform will be the ballot this year. Voters turning out will be able to vote for eight new sheriffs in Western North Carolina.

Another versionof this story was also published in the Smoky Mountain News.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.
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