Last week the League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia hosted a candidate forum between the two candidates running for Bryan County Sheriff. Unfortunately, technology did not cooperate and despite repeated attempts and a great deal of behind-the-scenes scrambling, we could not connect to Facebook Live to stream the event. Fortunately, we did record the Zoom webinar and, at this point, it has been viewed over 1,500 times. If you have not already seen it, I encourage you to visit our Facebook page and watch.
The League prides itself on candidate forums and we are sorry this did not work as intended. The committee that put it together headed by Rena Patton, our moderator Dr. Bertice Berry, our timekeeper Gene Brodgon, our partner Bryan County News and especially the two candidates, Mark Crowe and Al Hagen, did an excellent job.
The goal of a League forum is to provide candidate insight that allows voters to make informed choices at the polls. We hope you’ll agree that this forum accomplished that and you will go to the polls with confidence that you are voting for the candidate that aligns with your view of what’s best for the Bryan County Sheriff’s department.
Deputy Curtis Rawls, was an important influence, recalled a time he was working a federal drug case “when an agent working the case with us did something that put our integrity into question.”
Hagan said the agent claimed a suspect had tried to buy more drugs than he actually had, so Hagan went to the prosecutor and told him “the guy doesn’t deserve what was happening to him,” an action against a fellow officer that Hagan said “took a lot of integrity.”
“I didn’t hesitate for a second,” he said. “I made that situation right then and there. Integrity is everything. It’s not one of those things that’s for sale for me.”
Berry asked why the men were running for office, going first to Hagan, who retired from the GBI and built a successful polygraph business, Central Georgia Polygraph, Inc.
“I have passion for law enforcement, but I also have a passion for people,” he said. “I’ve always been that person where if you call and need something, I’m there. No matter what your social or economic status may be, if you ask for help I’ll find a way to help you.”
Hagan, who praised the work of current sheriff Clyde Smith and his predecessor, said his background, his resume and his desire to lead BCSO “into the 21st Century” make him the choice to be the next sheriff.
“Don’t look at what party I’m running in, look at it as I’m the most qualified,” he said.
Crowe said he was running “because I need to work. This is my career and I’m not in a position to retire,” he said. “I’m only 52 years old. I want to work, I’m ready to work and get out there and do things.”
Crowe said BCSO “is wide open for advancement and for new things to come in, new programs to be implemented and new technology we can use. There’s a lot that has been done, but it’s still a good ways away from what it can be.”
Crowe also touted his background with BCSO, which included work in patrol, on investigations and in drug enforcement, as well as his service as Pembroke’s police chief.
“I’ve been here, I know what needs to be done here,” Crowe said. “I’m ready to get to work bringing the Bryan County Sheriff’s Office to what it needs to be.”
Use of force, racial issues Both candidates were asked about killings in Glynn County and elsewhere that have led to widespread protests and concerns about how law enforcement officers do their job.
Hagan said training is paramount to making sure that when deputies encounter residents in dangerous situations, “they’re prepared to survive the encounter and the person they’re interacting with also survives the encounter.”
The key, Hagan said, is making sure BCSO is well trained, well organized and “sticks to professional standards. We have to hold our people accountable and have policies and procedures in place to do that.”
“If officers are not held accountable, if they tend to stray, then we’re not doing our job properly and citizens will lose confidence in our ability to police the community,” Hagan added. “My administration will make sure officers are professional, well trained and follow guidelines, guided by the Constitution.”
Crowe said he wants to implement what he called an early alert system that will gather complaints and use of force reports on deputies and use them “to flag those people, and let us know early on those officers may be a problem to the department,” he said. “Then if there’s some way to go back and retrain officers on something they need help on, de-escalation training or use of force, or dealing with the public, it lets us send the back to do that training over, instead of losing a good officer over a bad decision.”
Crowe said if an officer proves unable to meet standards, then the system “would also flag them so they didn’t go to another department, where they would end up bouncing around from department to department, which is a problem,” he added, noting he’d also like to establish a community review board which would let residents hear complaints, with the sheriff having the authority to address them.
The men were asked next what their vision of community policing, with Crowe first up.
“Back in the days when I was patrolling, there was the theory about broken windows leading to bigger crimes,” he said. “I always had the open window theory, and I always told guys working with me, when you’re riding through the neighborhood roll your windows down. Get out and talk to people. Get out of cars and shoot a game of basketball. When I was chief of police, I always allowed my guys to drive out of the city limits in their patrol cars over to Hendrix Park and coach football on their off times, because I wanted kids there to see the officer on the street is also a father who has children, and he’s also a coach and he’s in the community, not just someone coming out to lock up your momma and daddy when things are bad. Letting your officers be involved in sports, in things like Boy Scouts, and allow them to go in uniform, is a big plus.”
Hagan said community policing is about more than getting out of cars, it’s “also about getting into schools,” with programs such as DARE, and in sports programs.
“When we’re out talking in the community, we can’t be involved if all we’re talking about is locking people up,” Hagan said, noting the county needs veteran programs and ways to help address the county’s suicide rate as well as help ensure those with mental health are taken better care of.
“Don’t just talk about it, we need to do something about it,” he said.
Both men were asked whether state requirements of a minimum of once-annual weapons qualification and use of force training was adequate. Both said no.
“Training is one of my top priorities,” Hagan said. “That minimum of 20 hours required is not enough.”
He said he wants to make firearms training and de-escalation training more realistic, so that rather than have deputies stand on a range and calmly fire at a target, it “truly reflects a shoot or don’t shoot situation, so we don’t escalate that situation when we get there.”
Crowe said BCSO actually does conduct firearm training twice annually, “if the ammo is available,” he said. “Over the course of the last couple of years it’s been hard to get.”
Crowe said he wants to hire a full time training officer and hopes at some point to build a range. He also wants to train deputies on how to handle themselves in public.
“When an officer arrives at a situation, the officer, by the way they act, by their demeanor, by the way they speak to people, they can cause that situation to get out of control,” Crowe said. “As officers we have the power to make it good, or make it bad. We want to leave it a good situation.”
Five empty BCSO slots
The candidates were asked why they thought BCSO currently had five open positions for deputies, with Crowe up first.
“Because people are scared to death to become a police officer nowadays, that’s why,” he said. “I believe that applies to people out there across the state, and across the United States, where numbers are down.”
Crowe said he’d like to come up with a recruitment strategy through colleges as well offer aspiring law enforcement officers an opportunity to work in the jail for two years, then promote them into a deputy’s slot.
That prompted a follow up from Berry, who asked whether asking deputies to be a part of the community by starting them out as jailers would work.
Crowe said the jail was a good start for a deputy, and that time working in 911 might also be a good idea before beginning patrol work. “The jail is one of the better places to learn self-control, for one, by dealing with inmates. If they work in dispatch they learn how to deal with people on the phone,” he said.
Hagan said he didn’t think national trends were impacting Georgia, or Bryan County. He said it was money and opportunity.
“The key to it is recruiting,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to offer officers something truly tangible to enhance their career.”
He suggested pay differentials depending on a deputy’s job, junior deputy programs and recruiting area colleges and the military.
“Guys are exiting the military every day who understand discipline and how to interact with people from day one,” he said. “But I’ll work an eight hour shift if I have to before I’ll hire someone who’s not qualified.”
Hagan said he prefers local people and wants people invested in the community, and wants to recruit diversity.
“Everybody thinks diversity is just about racial lines, but it’s also along gender lines. We want females to have the same chance to be out on the road that our males have, if they want to be,” Hagan said.
Perhaps the toughest question of the night was couched in conversational rather than confrontational terms, with Berry noting that there is always talk in a small community and on social media, giving each candidate an opportunity to discuss things they had heard said about themselves.
For Crowe, who won outright a bruising Republican primary, said “everybody’s heard the story, because everything gets aired on Facebook,” then briefly recalled an altercation that led to a federal lawsuit alleging racism and brutality against him in 2009. Those charges were dropped in 2012.
“All of that information is filed in the courthouse,” Crowe said, noting he was exonerated, the case was dismissed and the defendant apologized. Crowe also said he and the attorney for the family, the late Sage Brown, became friends.
He also brought up his firing as Pembroke police chief, saying it “was over an automobile repair, but I believe it goes deeper than that there.”
Crowe said he’s moved on, regardless.
“Everything that goes on in my life I attribute it to God to putting me in that position and putting me in a place, using me for a season ….” he said. I’ve moved on. I hold no grudge, I have no animosity towards anyone. I don’t have any issue with anyone. I wish we could all get along.”
Hagan, asked the same question, said he and Crowe have laughed about some of the online allegations.
“Our campaigns have been a lot cleaner than early on in the (Republican primary),” Hagan said. “We don’t delve into it.”
He then mentioned a traffic stop that occurred in the past.
“There was a situation where I was arrested for window tint, and that video is available anytime if anyone wants to see it. I hired an attorney and went to court and did like any other citizen would do, and that is out there if anybody wants to see it. There are other actions that could have been taken, but I took the high road because I’m invested in my community.”
Hagan said he believed the officer who arrested him lacked training and leadership, “but the biggest thing in my professional career is that every day I work to be the best I can be. I’m not here to try and tear down my opponent. I’m here to show my resume and that I’m the best one to serve.”
Both Crowe and Hagan say they are for adding deputies to schools as both security and mentors, though both say any such plan would have to be worked out with the school board and superintendent. Of the two, Crowe seemed more of a proponent of having a deputy at each school in the county while Hagan was more circumspect. He said he’d first do a “true security risk assessment,” to determine where or if they were needed before putting deputies into schools.
“One thing I will say is that if we get involved in the schools we’ll have to have a true working understanding, because they have their guidelines they have to follow, we have guidelines we have to follow, and we have to make sure all those issues are worked out ahead of time.”
Crowe said he’d work with school officials to determine funding, “but it’s a very important thing to me,” he said, alluding to incidents in surrounding counties that have required law enforcement to respond to local schools. “I don’t want anything to happen in our county.”
He said deputies would be there as protection but also “compassionate to children to be a friend and a mentor.”
Body cameras, digital evidence storage
Hagan and Crowe, both supporters of digital body cameras for deputies, were asked how they would store the video.
Both candidates said they’d find a way to pay for the technology, either through fines or fees, but it is important for transparency, integrity and officer safety.
“God forbid an officer ever gets hurt out there on the road, but if so then that’s some kind of evidence to help identify the perpetrator,” Hagan said, adding the body cameras will also “keep officers accountable … and stop false complaints.”
Crowe said he’d first ensure a policy was written regarding body cameras and how they are used as well as what happens if they’re turned off, while noting BCSO recently ordered 15 of the cameras for $5,000 each and if he’s elected on his first day in office he’ll order another 15 “to outfit the entire department.”
Crowe said some departments issue deputies external hard drives on which they download their bodycam footage and then turn into an evidence custodian, and that might be an option.
“We can pay for it through the technology fee on traffic citations,” he said.
Transparency and PR
Both candidates say they will either appoint or hire someone to deal with the media and manage social media.
“We want to get the word out and information out as quickly as possible,” Crowe said. “There may be a time lapse because in our profession sometimes an investigation has to happen first and you can’t put out information right away, but being able to get information out to the public as fast as possible is one of the biggest things we need to do as a department.”
Hagan said transparency is important from the outset. “We’re accountable to our citizens,” he said, adding if elected he’ll make sure the BCSO budget is available for public scrutiny.
He said he will hire a public information officer to help deal with social media and area media and as sheriff work to build relationships with the media. He said his time in the GBI taught him the value of being upfront when things weren’t going well. “If it’s something we did wrong, we own it, we show this is how we fix it,” he said. “Our department will be open and be honest.”
If there was one question that elicited a difference of opinion in the two candidates, it was their thought on whether BCSO should have a drug enforcement squad given taxpayers already support the Chatham
Narcotics Team and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Team. Both men served in drug enforcement capacities at points in their careers.
Hagan said he believes in the importance of the partnership and wants to stay actively involved in those operations, but thinks local drug squads can get to be “almost like a gang,” without outside oversight.
Crowe disagreed, saying he wants a local drug enforcement team capable of focusing on local drug crimes because regional and state enforcement efforts tend to be scattered and focus on bigger communities in other counties. He said the sheriff and local police chiefs will help oversee local drug enforcement efforts, and also said local deputies know the area better and by focusing on the county are better able combat drug activity.
Hagan countered by noting after a short time undercover agents are found out and that leads to an overreliance on informants, who he said can have agendas that lead to bad information.
That can lead to lawsuits and worse, Hagan said, and “we don’t need that kind of policing in Bryan County.”
Crowe responded that while it’s important to keep ties with the Chatham Narcotics Team and GBI, “we have to focus on problems here at home. These things can be done with good supervision and good leadership.”
Candidates were asked as well about the importance of leadership training – both are proponents, and asked what they did to relax.
Crowe said he liked to work on his tractors and an old 1965 Ford Mustang he’s restoring, and he’s an avid hunter. He said he also enjoys babysitting grandchildren and spending time with family members, many of whom live nearby.
Hagan, a longtime AAU coach, said he also has a passion for family – he has a grandson studying to become a doctor and another studying business – as well as serving as a youth mentor with groups such as Xcel, a Savannah-based nonprofit that helps at risk kids learn trades.
And, he’s also into cars.
“I love drag racing, I don’t do it on the street, but I do follow the NHRA,” he said.
At the end, each candidate had time to make a final statement. Crowe began by telling voters he considers Hagan a friend he grew up with.
“We know each other well and treat each other well, and I can think can speak for him when I say that,” Crowe said, before recounting his community service efforts such as singing at patriotic events on both ends of Bryan County, and his faith and desire to serve.
“I want to be known as a person of integrity, a person of honor and a person of trust,” he said. “I want to be what they call a servant leader who serves his community and does so with compassion. I think I can make a big difference and a huge change for the better.”
Hagan reiterated his education, his professionalism and reputation as a level-headed agent who has led, managed and taught as well as built his own polygraph business.
He said during his time with the GBI “when GBI agencies were not working well with a city or county agency they would send me to that county for the reason that I work to build bridges, not tear them down.”
Hagan said he wants to “serve for the greater good of all, the all being the citizens of Bryan County.”
Afterward, LWVCG President Rebecca Rolfes said she grew up “across the street from the sheriff in her home town, so I know what an important fixture and anchor that is for a good community. It’s such a position of trust.”
“To hear you both so passionate about this position, it warms my heart,” she said.
Berry told candidates at one point late in the forum, “I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this,” and asked both men to stay involved in the community regardless of how the election turns out.
Rebecca Rolfes, President League of Women Voters of Coastal Georgia