Sebastian County Sheriff candidates debate jail tax, guns, school safety

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 1,018 views 

Sebastian County Sheriff candidates Jarrard Copeland, Randy McFadden, and Hobe Runion squared off in a three-way debate Thursday night (March 22) from the Riverfront Events building in Fort Smith.

All three men are running as Republicans, and with no Democratic candidates, one will emerge as the county’s Sheriff following the May 22 preferential primary or June runoffs should one fail to receive 50% of the vote in the earlier contest.

The topics Thursday ranged from medical marijuana and opiates to gun control, school safety, and support on a possible tax increase to expand capacity at the Sebastian County Jail. Sheriff Bill Hollenbeck, who formally endorsed Chief Deputy Runion on Thursday afternoon, factored into a portion of the debate as well with Copeland asking Runion to address criticisms that Hollenbeck had not been “visible” in his role with the county.

“I can’t speak for Sheriff Hollenbeck,” Runion said, “but I feel like if the people in the community feel they need to see their elected officials more, then that’s probably true. I will not say whether he was in public enough or not, but I will say, going forward, I plan on being the Sheriff that says, ‘What can I do for you?’ within the restraints of what we have.”

Despite the question, Copeland said he believed Hollenbeck “did a good job,” and that he had “no intentions of running until I found out he was retiring.” Copeland continued: “With that said, there was only one man to walk the earth who was perfect, and his name was not Sheriff Hollenbeck. I feel we could improve cooperation with agencies in the southern part of the county.”

Runion’s take on the state of the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office was that “things can always be improved, but I’m proud of the successes we’ve had, and I hope to continue the initiatives that we’ve already started.”

Specifically, on the topic of overcrowding at the jail, Runion said the Sheriff’s Office had been effective in managing the population, making use of “Drug Court, Veterans’ Court, electric monitoring, and assessing different people and their charges to see if they’re a danger to the community.”

Copeland and Runion were reluctant to endorse any tax increases to address the issue permanently. Copeland said he would “never favor a tax increase,” though he was fine with the question being put before Sebastian County voters. Runion said the county “absolutely” needed a bigger jail, but “I’m not coming to you asking for tax increases.”

“I think working with the quorum court and the judge, we have made a lot of progress for moving our facility and then moving our office to the Emergency Operations Center. What we haven’t come up with yet, is a way to pay for the operational cost, because the cost of employees goes on indefinitely. It’s not just construction,” Runion said.

As for McFadden, he said that “obviously” there was a need for a larger jail, and acknowledged that “At some point, the taxes will have to be raised.” He added: “I know it’s not popular, but crime’s not going down, and the inmate population keeps going up. I don’t see that changing.”

All three men took on the gun control and school safety issues, with Copeland saying he believed in open carry.

“I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Copeland said, adding he thinks “we’re born with the right to keep and bare arms, to defend ourselves not only against an intruder, but against an oppressive government.”

Copeland said while he thought Attorney General Leslie Rutledge was “possibly the best AG we’ve ever had,” he disagreed with her on open carry. “She believes if you openly carry a gun without a concealed license, you have to openly carry that gun. To me, that’s a misinterpretation of the law. Her opinion is you can’t conceal a handgun without a concealed permit, and I just don’t see it that way. I think we all have the right to open carry.”

Copeland favored the idea of more school resource officers to prevent mass shootings. He also mentioned arming teachers, who go through proper training and background checks.

On gun control, Runion did not favor putting more laws on the books, saying, “I don’t think we need them.”

“I think we have the laws to make it very expensive to an individual who violates our laws with firearms,” Runion said. As far as raising age limits, Runion opposed, noting he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan with 18-year-olds, who were “very capable of handling firearms.”

Runion said gun owners “owe it to ourselves” to protect the right to bear arms by “being responsible,” or “we will face legislation in the future.”

Runion called school safety a “high-risk, low-volume danger.”

“When it happens, it’s disastrous. I do think we can always be safer, and we’d be naive to think it could not happen here. That said, I think law enforcement is doing a very good job of protecting the schools.” Runion said some initiatives, like locking doors and expanding resource officers were underway. He said the county would need to partner with city law enforcement agencies “and possibly state government.” Runion said reserve deputies had reached out to him about working in the schools on a part-time basis. “We are looking at that very seriously.”

McFadden did not definitively weigh in on gun control, but acknowledged people he’d spoken to about gun legislation were fearful of governmental agencies overreaching on the regulation of firearms. As far as existing or future law, “As Sheriff, you have to enforce the laws on the books and follow the letter of the law.” McFadden felt the county should participate in active shooter drills with city law enforcement agencies “instead of waiting for something to happen.”

On local response to the national opioid crisis, Copeland, McFadden, and Runion were in agreement that education programs could go a long way in addressing the problem. Copeland said opiates were “a problem a Sheriff, a doctor, or a school teacher can’t fix alone.”

“But if we all come together, we make progress. The main thing is get into schools, educate kids on what this stuff does to you, and build relationships with these kids so they feel comfortable coming to you when Mom and Dad are abusing these drugs.” Copeland said opioid abuse can lead to other crimes as well.

From Runion’s perspective, the crisis had been “slower to work its way to our part of the country. Addressing it, he said, would be through “solid initiatives, education, teaching people what not to take and doctors what not to prescribe.”

Runion continued: “I think that we have to have treatment available, and decide whether to treat it as a criminal act or a medical act, beginning with enforcement, Drug Courts, Veterans’ Courts, mental health courts. We should treat the community holistically.”

McFadden also believed education, from grade school to senior citizens, would be necessary. As for medical marijuana, McFadden was the only candidate to oppose it, stating that in his experience, it led to other areas of illegal activity. Copeland and Runion had no issue with medical marijuana, but, like McFadden, opposed recreational and saw that marijuana use correlated to other more serious drug use.

While voters will not be able to weigh in until May, Hollenbeck endorsed Runion prior to the debate, stating that “two have emerged with true leadership experience in law enforcement.”

“Jarrard Copeland has served the city of (Fort) Smith honorably in the police ranks and has true police experience, and I thank him for his years of service. The other candidate, Chief Deputy Hobe Runion, not only has the experience of a law enforcement professional but has the true internal leadership qualities that I feel are needed in your next Sheriff,” Hollenbeck said.

He continued: “Chief Runion has been second in command in the SCSO since 2014 and possesses the institutional knowledge and the skill set necessary to take the department to the next level of professionalism. The citizens of Sebastian County deserve a Sheriff who can walk in on day one and have the knowledge of the complex issues required to run a modern law enforcement agency and ensure a steady leadership transition.”