Augusta resident Earnest Richardson said he is still not sure who he will vote for in the Richmond County sheriff primaries at the end of July. He is not alone.
“Most of my friends are undecided,” he said.
Five of the six candidates spoke at a forum Saturday morning at Broadway Baptist Church on Barton Chapel Road. Republican Michael Godowns did not attend.
The session got heated when the first question addressed party affiliation. Sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles and Lt. Robbie Silas have voted for candidates in both parties, and both are running as Democrats. One moderator, Tanya Barnhill, said Peebles had been called a flip-flopper. Both candidates said they had voted for the person, not the party.
Richmond County schools Public Safety Lt. Richard Roundtree addressed Peebles’ voting record, saying he had voted Republican in the past. Peebles said he has voted Democratic more times than Roundtree, because Roundtree only started voting six years ago. Roundtree then addressed the issue again, saying Peebles has only voted Democratic twice because he was going to run for sheriff.
Sheriff’s Lt. John Ivey and Roundtree both said they had always voted as Democrats.
The only Republican candidate at the forum, attorney Freddie Sanders, told the audience he had voted Republican his whole life.
“If I have to be tarnished because I’m a Republican, then I have to tell you that’s what I am,” he said. “I will not lie to you to get your vote.”
Another issue raised was diversity in the department. Barnhill asked what the candidates would do to address concerns that the sheriff’s office does not reflect Augusta’s majority minority population.
Peebles and Silas said the department had to be better about recruiting minorities. Ivey, Roundtree and Sanders said the promotion process would change under them.
All the candidates except Sanders said they would start a citizen’s advisory board within their first 100 days in office.
When asked whether they would consider putting someone on the board who had “been through the (penal) system,” Ivey, Silas and Roundtree said yes. Peebles said no.
A question from the audience concerned whether racial profiling exists.
“Is it out there? Sure it is,” Silas said. “It’s not just in the officers, it’s in the community.”
He said education is key.
“Perception is a dangerous word. It implies so many things,” Ivey said, adding that to avoid racial profiling, the department has to diversify.
Peebles said profiling is not the biggest racial problem in Augusta. He said he has heard some mostly black communities feel deputies treat them differently than white neighborhoods. He suggested sensitivity training and psychological assessments during the hiring process.
Roundtree said he had profiled in some situations, such as when there is a group of working-age men hanging on a street corner.
“It makes no sense for a 22- or 23-year-old, black or white, to be standing on a street corner when they could be working,” he said.
Sanders said he would address racial profiling during deputy training.
“I want those men to know that everybody’s life is of equal value,” he said.
Richardson said he is waiting for the candidates to give specific answers, and to be honest about their policies and affiliations.
“We have all heard what they said today before,” he said. “What I am waiting for is a truly honest answer.”