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Buncombe County Sheriff's Election Features Candidates With Very Different Views

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Buncombe County voters this fall will be electing a new sheriff for the first time in 12 years.  The candidates seeking the office come from very different backgrounds – and hold very different views on a few of the key issues in law enforcement.

When Van Duncan announced his retirement, it set off a scramble within the Democratic party for the nomination to become his successor.  Quentin Miller emerged victorious from a five-candidate field in this year's primary.  The 25-year-veteran of the Asheville police force has campaigned on changing the image of law enforcement officers from ‘warriors’ to ‘guardians.'  “I’ve been telling people all along I think of myself as Andy Griffith," said Miller during a forum in BPR's studios on October 15th.  "What I mean by that is get out and build relationships.  What has happened locally, and nationally (has shown) we have to get out and build better relationships.”

His Republican opponent is Shad Higgins, who ran for the GOP nomination unopposed.  Higgins is a business owner with no law enforcement background, but he argues that is not a hindrance.  “The job in Buncombe County, it being the largest sheriff’s office and administration in Western North Carolina, (sheriff) is more of a leadership and administrative position," Higgins said during the same forum.  "I’m sure if you will look into it, our current sheriff who has done a fine job, he is never out in the field.  He is taking care of day to day business, be it the budget or the management of his team.”

Higgins business, Weaverville Tire and Wheel burned down last Friday.  Local authorities turned over the investigation into the cause to the state bureau of investigation, which has yet to make a determination. 

During the forum in BPR’s studios, Miller and Higgins differed on some very high profile issues.  One is the use of ‘de-escalation’ training as a means to lower the use of force by officers, something very fresh in the minds of voters following the beating of an unarmed black pedestrian last year by a then-Asheville police officer.  Higgins believes de-escalation doesn’t work.  “It’s a social experiment," Higgins says.  "If you’ll look at Chicago is shows that de-escalation policing does not work.  It will not work.  They have the (highest number of murders) in the U.S.  That was just a social experiment and I am not willing to take that social experiment.”

Miller meanwhile says de-escalation fits with his strategy of building better relationships between the community and law enforcement.  “For me, law enforcement is about how to we help each other," Miller says.  "I think law enforcement needs to take the lead in doing that.  I think the training experience speaks for itself.  I think you have to have that.  In order for us to really understand what’s happening, we have to be there.  We have to be in the community.”

Miller and Higgins also differ greatly on how to combat the opioid crisis in the county.  Miller says the county ‘can’t arrest its way’ out of this problem.  “This didn’t happen overnight.  And it’s not going to be solved overnight.  We’ve had other strategies attempted, and in my opinion we haven’t done real well.  People continue to die from these opioids.  I’m not saying it needs to be a one or two or three-prong approach, but it needs to be a collective approach.”

Higgins meanwhile says he wants to see a more specific approach.  “I would like to see us go after the small street level dealers instead of trying to get to the big guy.  If we take all the small fish out of a pond, the small fish reflecting as the street level dealers, then the big fish will end up starving.”

Libertarian Tracey DeBruhl is also on the ballot, but he did not respond to invitations to participate in the forum.  

Matt Bush joined Blue Ridge Public Radio as news director in August 2016. Excited at the opportunity the build up the news service for both stations as well as help launch BPR News, Matt made the jump to Western North Carolina from Washington D.C. For the 8 years prior to coming to Asheville, he worked at the NPR member station in the nation's capital as a reporter and anchor. Matt primarily covered the state of Maryland, including 6 years of covering the statehouse in Annapolis. Prior to that, he worked at WMAL in Washington and Metro Networks in Pittsburgh, the city he was born and raised in.
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