Sheriff Ed Graybeal, left, and Jonesborough Police Chief Craig Ford debated several issues during a public forum Tuesday night. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal and his challenger in the upcoming election, Craig Ford, went head-to-head Tuesday night at a Johnson City Press-sponsored candidate forum, offering voters a glimpse at their position on a variety of topics.
Right off the bat, Ford talked about the five inmate deaths that occurred in a 10-month period. He also questioned the validity of how big of a drug problem there really is in the county or if recent announcements about arrests are simply an election-year tactic of his opponent.
Graybeal said he’s proud of the hard work his employees do and while he didn’t directly address Ford’s question about the election-year tactic, he did say methamphetamine production and prescription pain pills continue to plague the county.
In his opening remarks, Ford stood strong that he believes it’s time for Graybeal to go and for him – Ford – to take the helm at the sheriff’s office.
“When I began my campaign in January I stated that Washington County needed a new sheriff. I’m sitting here tonight in front of you repeating that I think Washington County needs a new sheriff,” Ford said.
He went on to talk about media reports about “allegations,” he made at his campaign kick-off, but said his remarks are based in fact.
“I’m not going to say things about the sheriff I can’t back up,” Ford said after Tuesday night’s event.
Also during his opening remarks, Ford said he believes training is a key to issues the sheriff’s office has faced recently, particularly regarding the inmates' deaths.
He noted recent media reports about use of force and the methods law enforcement have available.
He said that, from 2010 through 2012 “Washington County Sheriff’s Office utilized the highest number of use of force instances than the larger agencies in Upper East Tennessee.”
Ford did not differentiate that those numbers represented the patrol division and jail combined.
The number of use-of-force incidents for the patrol division was actually far less than the Johnson City Police Department's. The sheriff’s office had high numbers in the jail.
“It’s a training issue, in my opinion. And I can’t stress enough the vital importance of proper training,” he said. Ford was also critical of Graybeal’s decision to utilize the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to do a review of each inmate death, stating that it is the “sole responsibility” of the sheriff to handle those matters.
On the issue of meth labs, “we went from six to 40 in four years. I can’t believe the meth problem got that much worse in a four-year period. I just questioned whether that occur4ed because it happened to be election year,” Ford said.
But Graybeal didn’t mince words either.
“All the things said that have been said are of no merit. Period,” Graybeal said.
He touted the recent re-accreditation of the department for the seventh time. Accreditation is a stringent process in which a department’s operation is reviewed to determine if the agency adheres to certain practices. Part of the process measures an agency’s written directives and if those are followed properly.
“They went through ever policy and procedure we have from promotions to hiring, everything we have, and found nothing wrong with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office,” Graybeal said.
He said things that have been said during this campaign have hurt the men and women who work at the sheriff’s office. He also said the claims levied during the campaign are things he hasn’t heard about.
“There’s not been one single solitary person come in our office and say anything. I don’t know where they’re all coming from,” he said.
“The deaths that we had, I was hoping it wouldn’t come up. The reason I was hoping it wouldn’t come up is the families. They suffered enough. We did our own investigation like we always do. It was followed up by TBI, it was followed up by the grand jury and no true bills were ever brought back,” Graybeal said.
He said the sheriff’s office has been “above board” on all the inmate death investigations.
The candidates also addressed the issue of nepotism, which has been a topic since Ford kicked off his campaign.
In his response to a question on nepotism, Ford said he does supervise his uncle who was hired by the Jonesborough Board of Mayor and Aldermen. He said there are 55 employees in the sheriff’s office who are related in one way or another, but did not specifically say if any of those supervise a relative.
Graybeal said he does not have direct supervision of any relative even though his son, Lt. Eddie Graybeal Jr., is a patrol supervisor. Graybeal noted that it was actually Ford who hired Graybeal Jr., although Ford disputed that by saying it’s the sheriff’s ultimate decision on who to hire or fire.
Another hot-topic question asked if either candidate supported a prescription-only law for purchasing pseudoephedrine, one of the primary ingredients in methamphetamine.
Both men said they did not support an all-out prescription-only law, but Ford supports banning pseudoephedrine tablets and only allow the sale of the drug in gel cap form while Graybeal said he supported legislation currently under consideration in Nashville that would limit purchases of the cold medicine.
In closing, Ford told the crowd that he and Graybeal “simply have a philosophical difference on how things need to run,” but said he is the man to bring change to the sheriff’s office.
Graybeal said he hopes voters will see fit to keep him in office because he wants to continue the work being done to protect citizens of Washington County.
Graybeal became sheriff in 2003 by appointment and has been elected twice to the position. He started his law enforcement career with the sheriff’s office in 1980 after serving in the Army in Vietnam. He has worked in every department of the sheriff’s office.
Ford began his public service career in 1983 as a volunteer EMT in Johnson City. He went on to work for the Greene County Ambulance Service until being hired in 1985 by former sheriff Ron England. He left in 1990 to work for the town of Jonesborough, eventually being named chief of police. He was drawn back to the sheriff’s office in 1994 as chief deputy to former sheriff Fred Phillips and remained there until 1999 when he returned to work for Jonesborough as the police chief.