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PCC hosts Criminal Justice Town Hall Forum

Published Monday, October 21, 2019
by Elizabeth Townsend

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Law enforcement tackles challenges
By George Willoughby, writer, The Roxboro Courier Times
Visit www.facebook.com/piedmontcc for additional photos.

Roxboro Chief of Police David Hess and Person County Sheriff Dewey Jones participated in a Town Hall Criminal Justice Forum hosted by Piedmont Community College Tuesday night.

The forum was a collaboration between PCC and Averett University in Danville, Va. and featured Averett’s Criminal Justice Program Director Dr. James Hodgson alongside Hess and Jones.

The forum was split into three sections beginning with prepared, scripted questions being asked by moderator Roy Allen, who is the Criminal Justice and Public Administration Curriculum Coordinator at PCC. Then, criminal justice students were selected to ask questions they had prepared before the floor was opened to the general public.

The three discussed many modern problems facing law enforcement offices across the country including minority relations, community policing, mental illness and marijuana before fielding questions from the students and public.

In response to one question, Hodgson explained the importance of minority relations within law enforcement.

“One of the things that is very obvious is that police-minority relations is not just something. Many would argue it’s everything in policing as far as meeting the needs of the community,” Hodgson said.

He explained that members of minority communities consistently report being less than satisfied with the services of the local law enforcement agencies.

To combat this, agencies must build the trust of their communities.

Hess explained that his department is reaching out to the community through the Police Athletic and Activity League, coaching youth sports and Barbershop Uncut sessions, among other things.

“We are also a very transparent agency,” Hess said. “One of the first things we did four years ago was adopted some of the principles of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing created by President Obama which was published May 2015 and is available online,” Hess said. “We also have our complaint policy posted online so anyone can go and view our policy so there’s a clear set of expectations.”

Hess also discussed the challenges facing departments in terms of recruiting.

“I would say that recruiting is not just a local issue – it is a national issue,” Hess said. “We also have a lot of officers leaving the profession who joined in the 1990s under grants. For example, we have lost seven employees to retirement and have three pending retirements in the next 18 months.”

Jones echoed Hess’ comments.

“Recruiting is getting to be a problem because people don’t want to be in the profession,” Jones said.

Jones, who has been Person County’s Sheriff for 13 years, said his deputies go through minority and juvenile sensitivity training.

He said he attempts to build relationships with youth by reaching them earlier and the county saw a drastic reduction of gang activity when the children that had been reached made it to high school.

Jones said that both the sheriff’s office and police department sponsor candidates to attend training.

“I don’t care if you’re white, black or Hispanic – if you’re interested in that job, we can sponsor you and in today’s world you can get a job,” he said.

Marijuana

Asked how the legalization of marijuana in other states is affecting their work, Hess and Jones had similar answers.

Hodgson said the public should examine the impact of the War on Drugs.

“It has cost us a lot of money and we have seen the over representation of some minority groups in confinement and a lot of that in relation to drugs,” Hodgson said.

Hess said that studies have shown that marijuana legalization has not changed the crime rate in areas that have legalized it and that motor vehicle deaths involving marijuana have increased four times in those states.

“On the occupational side, marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act and the North Carolina Controlled Substance Act,” Hess said. “We’ve talked about mental health and how people use substances to self-medicate for their problems and we don’t need the decriminalization of marijuana – we need more assistance with mental health. I am opposed to the decriminalization of marijuana. I am opposed to smokable hemp. I will continue to enforce the laws on the books as long as they are there.”

Jones said that he spent over half of his career as a narcotics officer and his experience shaped his beliefs.

“I have interviewed thousands of people and every crack user, every heroin user, and every meth user has smoked marijuana,” he said. “Now, I will revert and say that not everybody that smokes marijuana will lead to that, but everybody who goes to those hard drugs started with marijuana. So it is a gateway drug.”

He noted that legalization has made harder, more addictive drugs cheaper.

“We served a search warrant two weeks ago and if we had not arrested two of the four people in that house, I honestly believe that their families would be going to a funeral in two months — they were that far down,” Jones said.

Questions from the floor
The panel was asked about their involvement in immigration enforcement locally and if they have been pressured to enforce these federal laws.

“I can tell you as an agency, legislators tried to force us to as sheriffs to go out and do our job which I was against because I’m going to do my job anyway,” Jones said. “We do not go out in communities looking for illegal aliens, but when they commit a crime and come into our jail we will check their status. If they have committed a crime in Person County and they are illegal immigrants then we will do our duty and contact federal agents for them to do their job.”

Hess added that local law enforcement is prohibited from enforcing federal immigration laws and that his department does not participate in any ICE task forces.

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