ANDERSON COUNTY - An unusually crowded race for Anderson County sheriff’s post has begun nine months before voters will decide the contest.
Sheriff John Skipper already faces three challengers in his bid for a third term. A fourth candidate started accepting campaign contributions in February but then dropped out of the race last month.
One of the candidates, Skipper’s former media spokesman Chad McBride, said he’s heard others are thinking about running for sheriff.
Skipper said he’s ready for whatever happens.
“I’m never surprised about politics,” he said.
At this point, McBride, former sheriff’s investigator Stan Ashley and former South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Pickens are preparing to compete against Skipper in next June’s Republican primary. No Democrats have announced plans to run, and the winner for the GOP primary will be favored to win the November general election in heavily Republican Anderson County.
At stake is a job with a six-figure salary that is responsible for leading one of the Upstate’s largest law enforcement agencies. With hundreds of employees and an overall annual budget of $33.5 million, the Sheriff’s Office handles scores of calls every day in unincorporated areas of the county. It also oversees the county detention center, 911 dispatch duties and the county’s emergency services division, as well as providing resource officers at several public schools.
Skipper’s challengers say the Sheriff’s Office is wasting money and suffering from high turnover of road deputies because of low pay and poor morale.
“The Sheriff’s Office is a mess right now,” Pickens said. “It is a big circle that starts and stops at deputy retention.”
Faced with an understaffed road patrol, Ashley said, Skipper is hiring too many young deputies with dubious qualifications.
“We attract people that probably shouldn’t be lawmen,” Ashley said. “I don’t need chips on people’s shoulders. I don’t need bullies.”
McBride said the loss of experienced employees on the road patrol, in the 911 dispatch center and at the detention center has been “devastating.”
“A lot of these guys want to come back, but only if the current administration is no longer in place,” McBride said. ‘The morale has been so low for so long. That is a leadership problem.”
In an interview Friday, Skipper said, “My record speaks for itself.”
He said he persuaded the Anderson County Council to raise the starting pay this year for deputes to $31,000 from $26,000, which will make his office more competitive with other area law enforcement agencies.
He also said that his challengers are misinformed about turnover at the Sheriff’s Office. According to Skipper, two deputies were fired last year and 15 others retired or left for other opportunities. He said the road patrol is almost fully staffed, with only four current vacancies.
In a recent evaluation, Skipper said, two officers from outside agencies found the Sheriff’s Office to be a well-run organization where people are happy to work.
Money and crime
Timothy Turner, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Anderson University, said a debate over whether public safety budgets are being spent wisely typically is a central issue in campaigns for sheriff.
“That is what it is all about,” he said.
McBride said he believes wasteful spending in the Sheriff’s Office is making Anderson County more dangerous.
“I feel like Anderson County used to be a safe place,” he said. “Now I think it has progressed to be a very scary, violent place.”
Violent crime in Anderson County has gone down since Skipper became sheriff, according to FBI data and statistics provided by the Sheriff’s Office. The statistics from Skipper’s staff show the rate of violent crimes per 1,000 residents has dropped from 4.98 in 2009 to 3.98 in 2014.
But the same statistics show that property crime has increased under Skipper’s tenure, rising from a rate of 29.37 per 1,000 residents in 2009 to a peak of 39.93 in 2013 before diminishing to 36.21 last year.
“Property crimes spiral and increase on a cycle of every three to four years,” Skipper said.
McBride said the statistics don’t tell the whole story. He said some frustrated residents have stopped bothering to report crimes to the Sheriff’s Office.
“They’ve developed this ‘What’s the use?’ mentality,” McBride said. “They’re fed up with it.”
Pickens and Ashley both said Skipper’s administration is “top heavy.”
Pickens pointed to the sheriff’s captains that oversee each of the four patrol regions in the county.
“You don’t need a captain in each region,” he said.
Ashley echoed his comments, saying, “I can take an $85,000 captain and turn that into two deputies.”
Skipper said the number of administrators at his office has grown as it has taken on more responsibilities such as the 911 dispatch center, emergency services and animal control.
He said his challengers don’t realize that the cost of hiring, training and equipping every new deputy is $110,000. He also predicted that any effort to eliminate region captains would be met with opposition by neighborhood watch groups throughout the county.
Skipper said the County Council caps his staffing levels.
“There hasn’t been a staffing increase since I’ve been sheriff,” Skipper said. “Calls for service are going up, and we as a county have not kept up with that increase.”
At a budget meeting in May, Skipper told council members that the average response time for priority calls has increased to 22 minutes in 2014 from 10 minutes in 2011.
While Skipper was successful in getting council members to approve salary increases for his office, they did not act on his request to hire two dozen new road patrol deputies and nearly 40 other employees.
Pickens said he’s been told that some residents have waited more than an hour for deputies to respond to routine calls. He said that the reluctance of Skipper and his top administrators to leave their offices is contributing to the slow response times.
“No one is getting off their butt to go to answer calls,” Pickens said.
He said Skipper is rarely seen except at crime scenes where news cameras are present.
If elected, Pickens said, he would require administrators to spend one day each week answering calls. He said this would lower response times and boost morale among deputies.
Skipper said his administrators “are already doing that.” He said that he personally handled three calls during a week earlier this month.
Pickens also said he would show more willingness than Skipper to publicly challenge 10th Circuit Judicial Solicitor Chrissy Adams.
Adams has been criticized by Pickens and the rest of his family for refusing to file charges in connection with a shooting last year that killed his brother, Leandus Pickens. Anderson funeral home owner Marcus Brown said he shot an intruder at Greenland Road residence about 2:30 a.m. on April 13, 2014. But a coroner’s report raised doubts about his story. The report also noted that Brown and Pickens had been involved in a relationship with each other for a decade.
The shooting remains under investigation, and Jeremy Pickens said he will have no involvement in the case if elected.
Ashley said he would place more emphasis on training and improving workforce diversity.
McBride said he would work to forge a better relationship with county council members and also implement new crime-fighting strategies.
Skipper “has been in the position of executive law enforcement for so long that it has removed him from the reality of what is really going on out here on the streets,” McBride said.
Pickens and McBride said they also have heard grumbling about how Skipper’s office has handled its investigation into the disappearance of 1-year-old Leonna Wright, who vanished from a Pendleton apartment complex on June 6 and remains missing.
“Most people feel like the Sheriff’s Office didn’t do everything it could,” said Pickens. He added that there is “no doubt” that the case hurt Skipper politically.
McBride said Pendleton residents have “griped and complained” that Skipper’s office prematurely called off the search for Leonna on the day that she was reported missing and also failed immediately seek assistance from the FBI.
“I would have used every resource at my disposal to locate that child, period,” McBride said.
Skipper bristled at the criticism.
“I did use all resources,” he said, adding that he was not going to publicly discuss an ongoing investigation.
Skipper said he will remind voters that he has more supervisory law enforcement experience than his challengers.
He also has more political experience. Ashley, McBride and Pickens have never run for office before.
“I have never been a politician. I am a rookie,” Ashley said. But, he added, “I am confident of my leadership abilities.”
Ashley has quit his job as an arson investigator at the Anderson County Fire Department to focus on his campaign. The rural Sandy Springs resident said he will sell his tractor if necessary to help make ends meet.
Pickens also resigned from the State Patrol after announcing that he was running for sheriff. He is now working as a dispatcher for Medshore Ambulance Service.
“There’s no way that I would have quit my job if I didn’t think I have a chance to win,” he said.
With multiple candidates in a race that is starting earlier than usual, the ability to raise campaign cash could play a key role.
“The sheriff’s race is a very expensive one to run,” said Anderson County Republican Party Chairman Dan Harvell.
More than $150,000 was raised in the 2008 Republican contest in which Skipper narrowly defeated former Sheriff David Crenshaw. Skipper raised $50,000 for his re-election campaign in 2012 but ended up having no opposition after his sole Republican challenger was among dozens of candidates throughout the state who were knocked off the ballot for failing to properly filed a financial ethics form.
Ashley said he hopes to collect $40,000 in contributions before the June primary. McBride said he intends to raise up to $70,000 or more.
Pickens said he will focus his efforts on meeting with voters and talking about his background as a proactive law enforcement officer.
“It is not about the money,” he said.
Pickens, 29, said he realizes some voters may have questions about his youth.
Anderson County has never had a black sheriff, and Pickens acknowledged that there may be a small number of residents with racist views who won’t vote for him.
“For the county as a whole, I don’t think that is going to be an issue,” he said.
Pickens said his lack of past ties to the Sheriff’s Office could work as an advantage for him. He also said he doubts voters will be swayed by Skipper’s experience as sheriff.
McBride said his goal is to restore the Sheriff’s Office as the “front line of defense for the residents of Anderson County.”
“Anderson County is a soft target for a lot of different criminals,” he said. “If we don’t do something now, it’s going to be hard to get it back. It is getting worse out there.
“I want to secure our future in Anderson County so my daughters have a safe environment to grow up in and hopefully one day my grandchildren,” he added. “That is the legacy that I would like to develop here.”
Follow Kirk Brown on Twitter @KirkBrown_AIM
Sheriff’s candidates John Skipper Age: 63 Law enforcement experience: • Richland County Sheriff’s Office, 1972-1988 • Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, 1989-2008 Political experience: Anderson County Sheriff, 2009-current Family: Married; one adult son Stan Ashley Age: 59 Law enforcement experience: • Pendleton Police Department, 1991-2004 • Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, 2005-2014 • Anderson County Fire Department arson investigator, 2014-2015 Political experience: None Family: Married; one adult son and one adult daughter Chad McBride Age: 36 • Law enforcement experience: • Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, 2001-2013 • NewSpring Church campus safety director, 2013-current Political experience: None Family: Married; three young daughters Jeremy Pickens Age: 29 Law enforcement experience: • Anderson City Police Department, 2007-2010 • South Carolina Highway Patrol, 2010-2015 Political experience: None Family: Married; one young daughter and one young son