If Freddie Sanders were sheriff, he said, he’d make downtown and First Friday safe by saturating the streets with officers of all races and genders in plain clothes so that criminals are never sure whether their next intended victim is a police officer.
Coupled with quick arrests for troublemakers, he said, his approach would need to be implemented only once to solve the problem.
“Give me that first First Friday and I’ll make it safe,” Sanders said. “My second First Friday, you can bring your newborn babies and your elderly people downtown.”
Candidates hoping to replace retiring Sheriff Ronnie Strength gave their thoughts on potential solutions to downtown safety in an NAACP debate at New Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church on Thursday evening. Strength said in a forum Wednesday that the July 6 shootings of six people were an isolated event, exaggerated by media coverage, and that downtown was a safe place.
Mike Godowns advocated more police presence on the streets to increase safety, but said he believed it was adequate now, while John Ivey said the answers lie in enforcing curfews by keeping restless juveniles off the street.
Richard Roundtree said the problem was not with First Friday nor the downtown area, but with the criminals responsible for the shootings and the culture surrounding them. He said he would address the problems, which include a gang culture and easily accessible weapons and drugs.
Scott Peebles said he would place officers in high-visibility uniforms downtown to both offer quick assistance to people in need and to deter crime with their presence.
The other candidate running for the sheriff’s office, Robbie Silas, had a previous engagement and had to leave the debate after giving his opening statement, which summarized his platform for the audience. He focused on adding officers to street patrols, better community relations, a more diverse department, youth intervention programs and a citizens advisory board to allow residents to relate what they’d like to see changed in the sheriff’s office.
He said he would address First Friday concerns by urging business owners to decide whether they want to continue to participate in the festival, and if so, working to put as many officers on the streets as possible to keep everyone downtown safe.
The last hour of the debate grew tense. Peebles said the men were trading shots, but Roundtree argued that each was just speaking honestly about the others.
The first volley was fired after the candidates answered questions about any disparity in the way the department deals with whites and blacks.
The first four responding candidates said there was a departmental problem with racial equality and pitched ideas to solve it, which included sensitivity training for deputies and higher promotion of minorities within the office.
Roundtree said that prejudice exists and that there is only one way to hope to see it disappear.
“Those people who’ve got those ideas, they’re going to have to die, because they’re not going to change,” Roundtree said.
Sanders, the last to answer the questions, argued that no one would be treated differently because of race during his tenure as sheriff, and if anyone was, those responsible would be immediately and publicly fired. He accused the other candidates of belittling their department in hopes of securing votes from the NAACP event.
After that, candidates seemed to lose their reservations about directly confronting each other.
Roundtree said Peebles was groomed by Strength to be the next sheriff, was promoted when others should have been, and would not represent change for Richmond County.
Peebles fired back and said Roundtree could have had those promotions if he’d worked hard, but instead was demoted four years ago.
“Yeah, four years ago I got demoted,” Roundtree said later, on how he would be a role model for the area’s troubled youths. “Four years later, I was sheriff of Richmond County.”
The two men also clashed over Peebles’ decision to run as a Democrat. Peebles said he was asking everyone to vote for him, regardless of race or party, so his party affiliation shouldn’t matter.
Roundtree responded that if it didn’t matter, Peebles wouldn’t have switched tickets.