Effingham County’s two sheriff candidates said they want to be able to put officers on the streets, but they also tried to show the differences between themselves at a forum Tuesday night.
Incumbent Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said he has tried to address the turnover rate that has plagued the department.
“We had 15 openings,” McDuffie said. “I felt it was better to fill 10 of them with good quality officers than to have 15 openings.”
McDuffie said his deputies have gotten eight raises since he took office and Effingham deputies are among the best paid law enforcement officers in the Coastal Empire. The raise in entry pay for deputies should allow his department to retain people, according to McDuffie.
“We’ve got good benefits. We’ve got a good pay scale,” he said.
Rick Gossett, the former Effingham deputy and current Bloomingdale Police chief who is challenging McDuffie in the July 15 Republican primary, said the deputies need to know there is a level playing field.
“People of the same rank should be getting the same pay,” he said. “You just don’t lose people over low pay. I have no problem filling the openings. They know they are going to be treated equally.”
Gossett said the number one challenge is to cut the turnover rate in the sheriff’s department.
“But it’s not just to fill the ranks up, but it’s the quality of the personnel in there,” he said.
When asked if his job was more administrative or more law enforcement, McDuffie leaned toward the law enforcement side. He said he’s often out on calls at 2 or 3 in the morning, assisting his deputies with everything from handling traffic to working a crime scene.
“I as a sheriff can’t ask my deputies to do something I’m not willing to do,” he said.
Said Gossett: “It’s really a 50-50 proposition. You are hired by the people of the county to enforce the law. But you also have an administrative function. You make sure everybody is on a level playing field and make sure you have the proper people in place. You don’t get hired to set an example for your deputies — you get hired to get a job done, and that’s to enforce the laws of the county.
"You should set high standards. They don’t elect you to come out at 3 o’clock in the morning. I have no heartburn doing that. You set the standards and make sure people adhere to those standards.”
Gossett continued his call to staff a precinct in the southern end of the county, and he also plans on having a citizens’ police academy and a citizens’ advisory board.
“The one thing I’ve learned in running law enforcement agencies is you are absolutely useless without the citizens’ cooperation,” he said. “We have got to work together, and that’s the only way you are going to get this accomplished.”
McDuffie said voters should choose him because of the initiatives he’s started over the last six years and the need to continue those improvements. He has had two officers trained for crisis intervention on staff to handle domestic violence cases — though one has been hired away by Gossett to the Bloomingdale force.
“We’ve got a mental health problem, and we use our jails as mental health facilities instead of using our mental health facilities to help these folks, and that leads to our domestic violence problems,” he said. “The crisis intervention folks can help with that.”
McDuffie also wants to start a four-man traffic unit to help with traffic. The department has a traffic trailer and has a counter to see which areas they need to concentrate.
“I get calls all the time from people who have speeders in their neighborhood, and we don’t have the people who can go to that neighborhood and sit and work traffic,” he said.
The sheriff also praised the work of a five-man anti-drug unit that reduced meth busts by more than 462 percent in its first year.
“They’ve been real successful,” McDuffie said, “and what’s brought them to that success is the citizens of this county said, ‘Look, I’m tired of it. I want something done.’ You know in your neighborhood what the problems are and you need to let us know, and that’s what’s made us successful.”
The department has increased its school resource officers program, created a warrant division, started a nationally-certified evidence custodian program and increased the number of officers on the road, McDuffie said.
Gossett said voters should treat their vote as if they were hiring someone for the position and they should compare the candidates’ resumes.
“You need to tally this up,” he said. “When you put us side by side, and who had the experience and the training to do that and the results, I think you’ll come to the right result.”
McDuffie also said he wants to establish a citizens’ advisory board and an Explorers program to get young people involved. He said the department has made great strides under his watch.
“It’s not my job to make you happy. It’s my job to keep you safe,” he said. “If I keep you safe and happy, then I’m tickled to death. We’re not a perfect organization, but we learn from those mistakes. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made in the last six years.”