Candidates for the office of elaborated on community concerns during at the Watkinsville Community Center.
The forum was sponsored by the Oconee County GOP and and moderated by editor Blake Giles of .
, who is seeking his sixth term in office, and c who serves as a sergeant for the , spoke about drug use by minors, criminal investigation follow-ups and staff management during the political forum.
Law enforcement presence in schools
Downs said if elected, he'll ask deputies assigned to shifts near schools to visit with school officials and students in an effort to cut down on illegal activity.
"They're going to become familiar with the principals and the staff and the students in each of the schools they're assigned to," he said. "They'll be more approachable by the students, and therefore become another person they can go to, whether to say that there's illegal drug activity going on, or just if they have an issue at home going on."
However, Berry said deputies in schools might not be necessary.
"I've been Sheriff for 20 years," Berry said. "I've known every school superintendent and every school principal. I have yet to have a school teacher, school principal or school board member or school anyone tell me they need a deputy sheriff in our schools. It's not the job of the Sheriff's Office to run the schools. The schools run themselves."
Widespread drug use in Oconee County schools isn't an issue, according to Berry.
"I pulled the numbers between and ," he said. "We had six drug cases last year. Six."
That only takes into consideration students that were caught with illegal drugs, Downs replied, and more deputy involvement in the schools might help curb activity which is going undetected.
"There's the caught and there's the uncaught, unfortunately," he said. "And there's cases of children selling drugs to other children in schools that have gone undetected that might be detected if we had deputy liaisons in the schools."
Crime rates, investigations and crime reduction
The candidates also discussed their ideas to reduce crime.
Berry said deputies use tactics such as crime statistics analysis and heavy enforcement in areas with higher crime rates to curb illegal activity in the county. He also said only 18 burglaries were reported during the past year.
"Our patrol operations work," he said. "We work those high crime areas, we dedicate patrol operations to those high crime areas. We have reduced crime. We're going to continue to reduce crime with the same number of deputies we have now."
Downs said the Sheriff's Office could do more to follow up on investigations.
"It's one thing to have a deputy pull up in your driveway and write a report. That's their job," he said. "But to have a detective actually pull up in your driveway, come to your home, take pictures, look for fingerprints, tire impressions, shoe impressions is also part of that function too. That's service you deserve as residents of Oconee County."
But Oconee deputies already follow up on investigations, Berry said.
"Our deputies catch burglars," he said. "They don't need an investigator to do that. They catch burglars. I'm looking at deputy sheriffs in this room right now that have caught burglars."
Management of staff
Also debated was whether current man power in the Sheriff's Office is adequate.
"For any given day, I have five deputies or six deputies for over 186 miles and 500 miles of paved road," Berry said. "That's a lot of ground to cover. We're down four positions in the uniform patrol division. My men and women are working short and they do a remarkable job. I'm exceptionally proud of all of them, because despite working short they keep crime down, and I'm proud of every one of them."
Downs said personnel questions are hard to answer "until you're sitting behind the desk."
"I can tell you from my years in law enforcement that police departments that say they don't have enough help usually have their employees allocated in the wrong positions," he said.
During closing statements, Berry said he has never regretted his decision to serve in Oconee County. He also said he had made numerous efforts to be involved with youth in the community.
"I've been involved with cheerleading, baseball, football, tennis, golf, the prom," he said. "Being involved with young people and being involved in Oconee County has been a blessing to me. I appreciate your support."
Downs said he has gone door to door to try to understand concerns from of citizens in Oconee and also highlighted his involvement in the community.
"I've sat in people's homes and I've explained to them what my goals were for Oconee County," Downs said. "I've enjoyed going around and talking to folks in the county from all over the county and going to town meetings and listening to their concerns. And that's what I mean about being involved in the community. It is important that we have a sheriff in this county that is visible, that is approachable and that is accountable."
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