By Kim Barto Meeks
The three candidates for Henry County Sheriff kept the tone civil but disagreed on crime statistics in a debate Tuesday night at the historic Martinsville courthouse.
Incumbent Sheriff Lane Perry and challengers John Cassell and Jerry Farmer squared off in a public debate organized by the Martinsville-Henry County Chamber of Commerce. The benches of the former courtroom were full of spectators, some wearing shirts supporting their chosen candidate. Attorney Phil Gardner moderated, giving each candidate a set amount of time to respond to questions about their background, qualifications, and views on issues ranging from how to deal with drug crime to whether teachers should carry guns at school.
“The Chamber is not here to stir the pot tonight. We’re here for the meat and potatoes,” Gardner said as he laid out the ground rules for the debate. The goal of the event was to highlight “what are the essential differences between the candidates,” he said, and to “make the public more aware of the skills and talents of each.”
All three candidates in the upcoming Nov. 5 election cited extensive experience in law enforcement. Perry has been sheriff since 2006, when he was appointed following the federal indictment of then-Sheriff H. Frank Cassell and others in his administration. Perry was elected in 2007, 2011, and 2015. Farmer and John Cassell (no relation) have both worked under Perry’s administration in the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, among other experience. Farmer also ran against Perry in 2015.
The main points of difference that emerged during the debate were disagreements over placing School Resource Officers (SROs) in county schools and questions about the number of recent arrests made by the Sheriff’s Office.
Cassell and Farmer both criticized Perry’s administration for its number of drug arrests, which they said is lower than in neighboring Franklin County, despite Henry County having more deputies. However, they could not agree on a figure, with each citing a different statistic for the number of arrests in Henry County. Meanwhile, Perry defended his record and countered with a much higher number of arrests he said have occurred during his current term. The number is higher than the state average, Perry added.
“One of the main reasons I believe we need a change is our high crime rate. It is still higher than our surrounding jurisdictions,” Farmer said. Compared to Franklin County, which he said “is almost identical in population,” Henry County has a higher rate of murders, assaults, breaking and entering, robberies, etc., he said.
Farmer also said that in 2018, Franklin County had more drug arrests, “over 586,” working with 80 sworn officers versus 288 arrests in Henry County working with 122 officers. “We can do a lot more,” he said.
Later in the debate, Cassell echoed this sentiment, but claimed Franklin County made 533 drug arrests last year, as opposed to 60 in Henry County, “and they’re doing it with less deputies.”
Perry shared different figures in his response.
“We’ve made over 1,000 drug arrests in this term, so we’ve had more than 60 in a year,” Perry said. “We’re fighting this drug problem as seriously as we can. We’ve changed the way we do our drug arrests so that the next time we catch these people, they serve automatic minimum time.”
He also said the Sheriff’s Office has a 48 percent clearance rate, which is 12 percent higher than state average. He cautioned against using crime statistics from the Uniform Crime Report because they do not show which cases were solved, and many are solved after the report is printed.
Perry touted his administration’s use of cutting-edge technology to prevent and address crime, and the use of grant funds to minimize the cost to the county. “Technology is really bridging some gaps in leading to big drug arrests,” he said.
Responding to a question from Gardner on how to handle drug crime in the community, Cassell criticized Perry’s actions in a recent raid on a grow house in Bassett that seized $1.3 million worth of marijuana.
Cassell said authorities should have waited to conduct the raid, and said the timing of it was “just for publicity. …What you’re seeing in this administration is they’re reacting to this election.”
Perry responded that the bust was the result of “very good investigative work. There are certain things that when you get the opportunity, you have to act within certain time frames.”
The topic of School Resource Officers (SROs) also came up several times in the debate.
Cassell and Farmer are both campaigning on a platform of placing SROs at all Henry County Schools. Currently, there are deputies at five schools who are employees of the Sheriff’s Office but paid through the county school budget. Perry questioned how the nine additional SROs would be funded.
“At the end of the day, it has to be paid for somehow, or you have to pull from existing staff,” Perry said, adding that his office already takes measures “to safeguard our schools. We work closely with our schools on anything that may be a threat.”
Ultimately, the Henry County School Board and the Henry County Board of Supervisors must participate in those discussions, Perry said.
Cassell said, if elected, he will bring former SRO T.J. Slaughter into his administration to find grants to pay for SROs in the county. Slaughter is currently the director of school safety for Martinsville City Schools.
In the case of an active shooter, a lot of casualties happen in a short time, Cassell said. “It’s seconds versus lives, which is why it’s so important to have a highly trained SRO at every county school.”
Farmer noted that he campaigned for more SROs in 2015, and the administration “stated we didn’t have the money without raising taxes. Now we’ve got a $67 million jail for 280 prisoners,” he said, referring to a capital project in the county. “To me as a citizen and taxpayer, that does not make sense to me. Why aren’t we protecting our children and investing money in our children?”
There are about 4,400 children attending school in the county who are not protected by SROs, Farmer said.
Two questions during the debate dealt with how the candidates will work with businesses and organizations such as churches and community groups.
Perry discussed the Sheriff’s Office Community Oriented Policing (COP) program and how they work with groups such as neighborhood watches.
“We will meet with anyone, anywhere, anytime,” he said. “If you’re concerned about your safety, we’ll come out. We are glad to meet with any group and tailor training to their specific needs.”
As for businesses, he said, his office tries to share information about scams and how to prevent theft. They are also available to help advise businesses on security measures. In the case of a crime, “our patrol division responds quickly.”
Referring to the Sheriff’s Office and local businesses, Farmer said, “There should be a better relationship there.” He recounted the story of a business owner in Collinsville who “got fed up, packed up and moved into Franklin County” after being broken into four times.
“Our population is already decreasing. Anything we can do to make these businesses safer, that’s what we need to do,” Farmer said.
Cassell said he wants to hire “a crime prevention specialist as a free service for our businesses,” who would “give you some tips on how to secure your facility, and how to cut down on white-collar crime.”
Cassell also said the Sheriff’s Office needs to be more visible. “Henry County is 384 square miles. There’s a lot of areas in our county that never see a patrol vehicle.”
To that end, he said he would like to set up substations where deputies could go in different parts of the county throughout the day instead of going back to the main office. No estimate was given during the debate of how much this measure would cost.
Moderating the debate, Gardner praised all three men for stepping up to take on a very complicated job in public service. “I can’t think of another jurisdiction that has had three such good candidates,” he said.
Attorney Phil Gardner (standing) moderates a debate Tuesday night between the three candidates for Henry County Sheriff (seated, from left): Jerry Farmer, incumbent Lane Perry, and John Cassell.