CAMBRIDGE — The Mid-Shore League of Women Voters sponsored a two-hour forum for candidates facing opponents in the Nov. 4 election. The event included posts for Dorchester County Council and Sheriff.
Three candidates for sheriff were: James Phillips (incumbent), John Foster, and Greg Robbins.
Opening and closing statements were two minutes each and answers were limited to one-minute. Audience members submitted questions that were reviewed and combined to avoid duplicates. A timekeeper ensured that participants stuck to the rules.
In his opening statement, James Phillips, county sheriff since 2002, listed his law enforcement experience and contacts plus his numerous state and local organization memberships. He routinely talks to people to identify and solve community problems.
John Foster spent 12 years in the Army and was a police officer for 20 years. “I am about your children as well as mine,” he said. Greg Robbins served in the Coast Guard for 5 years and in Dorchester County’s Sheriff’s Department for 15 years. He currently investigates for the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.
League moderator Glenna Heckathorn asked the questions, some of which were League prepared but most came from the audience which numbered over 80.
She asked, “How well does the Sheriff’s office coordinate with the Cambridge police and now that Chief Malik is retiring, what would be your goals for coordinating with the new chief?”
Mr. Foster said, “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.” He would tap into other agencies’ resources based on circumstances. “We all have the same goal in mind – keeping Dorchester safe.”
“With a 400 percent increase in heroin since 2011 in Dorchester County; a 422 percent increase in the amount of firearms theft, we have to work together,” said Mr. Robbins. He referred to a “Criminal Bureau” that would bring together local law enforcement including Maryland State Police, Cambridge, Hurlock, and Natural Resources Police plus local federal agencies to handle all crimes. He explained the Bureau would bring them together to work as an effective, cost efficient team for tapayers.
Sheriff Phillips said, “We’ve always enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with our brother agencies and routinely serve on task forces with the other agencies.” He referred to Project Safe Streets as “one of the big accomplishments” with recently received state funding for partnerships to share information, resources, and broaden coverage. “Criminals don’t respect county or state lines. Neither are we from here on out. We’ll be able to chase them wherever they’re going to go.”
School security is a major concern. Ms. Heckathorn asked how the county sheriff’s office should handle security.
Mr. Robbins noted that we protect politicians, so “why not protect our most precious possessions? Our children.” He suggested an auxiliary program comprised of well-trained retired officers who are willing to put in the time as a school resource on a part-time basis. He would include volunteers as well. “Parents would love to be a watchful eye in schools,” he said, adding that it would be very low cost.
Sheriff Phillips explained, “After Columbine . . . we formed a committee with various community members like police, school, fire and met to develop various scenarios, plans, policies, and procedures.” Each school must have an emergency plan in place and now each has a buzz-in system and required ID badges. The sheriff’s department schedules visits to schools for designated drills (lock-downs, etc.), and evacuation procedures. “While the school security system is not perfect here,” he says, “we are well ahead of the other counties here as far as training, equipment, and knowledge.”
Mr. Foster said “the best resource that we have out there are our children. A lot of times kids share information and unfortunately we’re not listening. Kids have much more intel than we have.”
The moderator asked what programs a candidate would put into place to stop heroin and other illegal drug use and how he would address the crime associated with drug use.
For Sheriff Phillips, “the only way is accept the fact that it’s not just a law enforcement problem.” He sees it as an economic problem as well as the “degrading” of the family. “We can’t just arbitrarily lock up everybody using drugs and think that’ll solve the problem. Once we get them arrested and the court system comes into play we have to have ‘truth in sentencing.’” He also feels addicts and those with mental health problems must be helped. “We’ve got to prosecute, arrest, enforce, but we also have to treat the addiction.” He recommended the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program for middle and elementary schools.
Mr. Foster said the way to curb drug abuse is many pronged. Education is one way. He taught the D.A.R.E. program for five years and knows it can make a dent in some of the problems. “We have to educate the community, talk to family members to identify who those folks are without putting a stigma on them. We have parks, baseball diamonds but that is seasonal. What are we doing year-round? The bad guys know where the kids are. But if they’re inside a controlled environment like a police athletic league the bad guys are not going to come where we are. It costs $20,000 to house an inmate but $4,000 for the treatment.”
Mr. Robbins agreed that “education at an early age is key.” He reiterated that a Criminal Bureau, successful in other parts of the state, would not cost taxpayers any money. “We already have personnel in place. We have three deputies assigned to a drug task force working in the county. We need to get together with state police, Cambridge, Hurlock, local law enforcement, and all work from the same sheet of music.” He encouraged reaching out to churches, social services, and the educational system since teachers know what’s going on in schools. He included reaching out in the jails. “You wouldn’t believe how many of those incarcerated know what’s going on out on the street better than you and I do.”
In closing statements, Mr. Robbins said that potential businesses look not only at the county’s economy but at crime statistics. He explained that crime is not just in Cambridge but passes through the county. “The problems are not airlifted in.” He would ensure deputies’ pay is equivalent to surrounding counties; they have proper training, and good equipment.
For Mr. Foster “it has been a long nine or ten months but it’s been worth it. Based on how large the county is and how long it takes to get from one end to the other, Mr. Foster said, “I would like to see some additional officers.”
“The greatest resource is our employees,” said Sheriff Phillips. He has lobbied for pay raises, a rank system, and a retirement system. “We have to hire, train, and maintain the work force,” he said, to be competitive with surrounding areas. “Drug and crime problems have always been here. But we are aggressively addressing those issues by working with other law enforcement.”