Monday, November 06, 2006

What Those Letters REALLY Say

Guest blogging: Stumpy

The ninth-hour appearance of letters-to-the-editor signed by members of the Watauga County Sheriff's Department (High Country News, Nov. 2nd) would be remarkable enough, but the identical manner in which all three letters attack Sheriff candidate L.D. Hagaman demands response. The letter-writing looks like an orchestrated act of desperation organized by the incumbent Sheriff to distract everyone from a mismanaged department that's been under a cloud -- two federal lawsuits pending against it for sexual harassment and bias.

Such published letters by sworn deputies are unorthodox. It is something I have never seen previously, and my experience includes covering elections for sheriff in three states, including those incessant and controversial Gwynn-Phillips contests in Avery County. In all those races, I never saw such an open demonstration of bias as represented by those letters in the High Country News. Deputies are understandably expected to support their Sheriff as a matter of self-interest, and they feel, rightly or wrongly, their very jobs depend on it. That support, however, is expected to be private and personal, not published in the local press.

In challenging the qualifications of L.D. Hagaman, the letters offer as evidence a collective ignorance. Major Steve Thompson's "investigation" consisted only of "having spoken with several officers in our department." Captain Kelly Redmond questions how someone can have over 30 years of experience in law enforcement while at the same time holding other jobs. Captain Brian Tolbert denigrates Basic Law Enforcement training programs, and suggests that working as a sworn officer is hardly the equivalent of "working cases and patrolling the streets."

These attacks suggest that the signers of these letters view law enforcement as simply a job and not as a profession. Merely allowing themselves to be drawn into making public assertions of this nature alone makes questionable their character and fitness to hold office. Inserting themselves publicly into the middle of a partisan political process shows a willingness by those officers to violate the basic principles of impartiality that the public has a right to expect from law enforcement officers. While not a violation of a specific rule, such as that which covers the conduct of town employees, these letters are clearly contrary to the behavior most people expect from those to whom they entrust their safety.

Frankly, despite having known L.D. Hagaman for almost 30 years, I was both amazed and surprised by the extent and depth of his law enforcement credentials. While his employment did not require having to renew his qualifications as a sworn officer, Hagaman has taken upon himself to maintain his certification as a law enforcement officer. The people of Watauga County would be well served by electing a true law enforcement professional. The sheriff's office badly needs a restoration of good management, basic fairness, and integrity.

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