Southampton County sheriff candidates share differences at forum

Published 9:02 pm Thursday, October 12, 2023

The candidates in the race for Southampton County sheriff shared their platforms and also responded to critical comments made against each other during a candidate forum held before a crowd of more than 100 people at the Sedley Fire Station on Friday evening, Oct. 6.

The forum was made possible by GFWC Sedley Woman’s Club, and the questions asked of the candidates by the moderator came from the people in attendance.

The candidates running for sheriff include the current sheriff, Josh A. Wyche Sr., and Tommy Potter, who is currently serving as a captain with the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office.

This article will highlight a couple of the areas in which Wyche and Potter clashed during the forum, and some of the topics being covered during those discussions addressed key parts of their campaign platforms.

Following is one of the questions posed to Potter and Wyche: “As a retired law enforcement executive, I am concerned about the continuing problem of recycled law enforcement officers. Problem officers who are fired or resign in lieu of firing can show up again at another agency. Sometimes problem officers are simply reassigned to positions that keep them away from the public. Is there or should there be a policy in Southampton County to prevent this from becoming a problem here?”

Potter said there should be.

“It is important that agencies have strong standards of conduct, rules of conduct for their officers,” he said. “I’ve done some research — the (Southampton County) Sheriff’s Office policy on rules and conduct hasn’t been updated since August of 2002, alright, so that’s unacceptable.

“So we’ve got to make sure that our policies are strong and that we are holding ourselves accountable,” he continued. “Me, as an executive, me, as a commander in the agency where I’m at now, we hold ourselves accountable so that we can hold those that work for us accountable. That’s why we’ve talked about extensive background checks — knowing who’s coming to work for us. It’s not to slight those individuals; it’s making sure that we have the best of the best. And if we have individuals that work for us that are subject to disciplinary actions, they need to be dealt with.”

He stressed the importance of developing a standard and holding employees to that standard.

Wyche said the problem of recycled law enforcement officers is present across the commonwealth, and the practice of reassigning officers is hardly restricted to Southampton County Sheriff’s Office but is present at a lot of agencies.

When it comes to hiring, Wyche said his office does not always receive all the information he needs on a potential hire from the individual’s previous agency, so he has his investigators dig to find more information.

“And again, as far as the reassigning, yes, we do reassign,” he said. “And again, I’m not the only agency that does this, and I’m sure that you can go to other agencies and find the same thing.”

During his rebuttal period, Potter said, “So I really can’t be concerned with what happens at other agencies. I’m concerned with what happens in the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office. I’m not up for chief of another agency.”

He said this discussion comes back to the subject of standards that are set for the law enforcement officers in the community.

“Law enforcement has changed today from what it was five years ago or 10 years ago,” he said. “So that may have been OK to reassign somebody 10 or five years ago, but it’s not OK today.”

VISIBILITY IN THE COMMUNITY AND THE OFFICE

Following is another question posed to the candidates: “How much emphasis should be put on the sheriff being visible in the community?”

Wyche said, “There’s a lot of emphasis that should be put on the sheriff being visible in the community.”

He noted that visibility brings unity, and it affords valuable opportunities to work with the children in the community to make sure they are taken care of.

“Anybody that knows me knows that I’m very visible in this community,” he said. “There’s nothing that goes on in this community that I’m not a part of. And yes, it takes a lot of time, but I don’t look at that time, because at the end of the day, you are my citizens. It’s my job to take care of you, and being a part of you — this is what it’s all about. 

“Anybody can apply for this job, but do you want to really do what it takes?” he continued. “And being visible in the community is what it takes. But not only that, I make sure my deputies are visible in the community. My deputies go with me where I go. It’s not that I’m making them go; it’s that I ask, and they do go.”

He noted that this visibility extends to attending funerals that are held in the community, providing support in those difficult times.

Potter noted that he ran for Southampton County sheriff four years ago, and one of the foundations of his campaign was being engaged with the community.

“To Sheriff Wyche’s credit, he grabbed a hold of some of those things, and he did some of those things, and he’s doing some of the things himself,” Potter said. “He is. He is very visible in the community, we see him out, and I credit him with that, for getting out and being in the community.

“But at the same time, we’ve got to have somebody who is visible within the office,” Potter added. “We’ve got to have somebody who can find the time to sit down and rewrite policies.”

He mentioned the evidence policy, rules of conduct and defensive driving policy.

“We still have policies within the sheriff’s office that are 20 years old,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with going to a funeral, nothing at all, and showing respect. But at the same time, you’ve got to be concerned with the day-to-day operations of the department. We’ve got to be sure that things are running smoothly. 

“We’ve got to be concerned that we’ve had 60 people in the last two-and-a-half years left the office,” he continued. “So let’s spend some time dealing with the culture within the office and figure out why 60 out of 76 have left the office. Yes, it’s good to be in the community, and we need to find a balance. It’s about finding a balance, and that’s what being a sheriff is about.”

In his rebuttal, Wyche took issue with Potter’s characterization that he grabbed hold of principles of community engagement from Potter’s 2020 campaign platform. Wyche then pointed to his own 39 years of experience in the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office.

“First of all, I didn’t grab a hold of this,” he said. “I’ve been doing this all my life, ever since I’ve been at the sheriff’s office. Anybody that knows me knows that I’ve been in the community all that time.

“As far as being in the office, I’m in the office when I need to be in the office,” he continued. “And as far as doing these policies and all, this is why you put people in place. You put people in place to make sure that they are keeping up with the policies and they are making sure that we’re bringing them up to date.

“And as far as talking about people leaving the office, first of all, you’ve got to be in my office to know why people are leaving, OK?” he added.

He pushed back on any implication that they are leaving because of him.

“At the end of the day, people retire, people go on to other jobs,” he said. “This is not just at Southampton County Sheriff’s Office; this is everywhere, this is reality, OK? So people are going to leave you, and at the end of the day, we must continue on, and that’s what we’re doing at Southampton County Sheriff’s Office.”

Potter responded by saying, “If you have people in place that are supposed to be updating the policies, maybe we need to check what they’re doing, because the policies aren’t being updated.”

Addressing Wyche’s response on employee departures, Potter said, “When I talk about 60 out of 70-some that are leaving, that’s not including the retirees; that’s taking the retirees out of that number.”

PERSPECTIVES ON ACCREDITATION

Following is another question posed to the candidates: “If approached by a concerned citizen about an issue on a deputy, would you go through a thorough investigation? Please elaborate.”

Potter said it depends on what the issue is and that he would handle things on a case-by-case basis. 

In his answer, he also highlighted the importance of Southampton County Sheriff’s Office becoming an accredited agency.

“Accreditation drives your standards,” he said. “It makes sure that you treat your employees and your citizens fairly and equally, so if they break a policy, depending on what it is, you deal with it appropriately.”

Wyche said, “Yes, I agree, you have to deal with your staff appropriately, and yes, we at Southampton Sheriff’s Office do have those measures in order.”

Wyche gave a brief history of how accreditation got started, and then he gave his thoughts on what accreditation is.

“To me, it’s somebody looking over your shoulder to make sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “Now, Virginia law makes sure that we do what we’re supposed to be doing. If you don’t follow the law, then you will be arrested; it’s as simple as that.”

He mentioned that while some agencies are accredited, many are not.

“Accreditation is fine for some agencies, but it’s not fine for all agencies, because at the end of the day, (if accredited,) you have to have two people (in your agency) that are dedicated to making sure that, No. 1, the policies are being kept up with, and No. 2, that the policies are being followed,” he said. “Now, at Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, we’re not fortunate enough to have a lot of people that we can have two people that are dedicated to that.

“So again, if somebody breaks the law, we’re definitely going to make sure that we look into it, and discipline will be handled as needed,” he added.

Potter responded and said, “I’m going to differ with the sheriff on accreditation. Yes, I want somebody looking over my shoulder.”

He said that the accredited agencies are proving they are the best in the state by meeting the necessary standards.

“Why shouldn’t the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office prove that we can be one of the best in the state?” he said. “What are we doing that we don’t want somebody looking over my shoulder?”

He concluded his response by saying, “Let’s not settle for second best.”

In his rebuttal, Wyche said, “I don’t settle for the second best. We have the best at Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, so I don’t need anybody looking over my shoulder to say that I have the second best. For somebody to say ‘the second best,’ no. If you look at all the men and women (deputies) that are in this audience today, they are Southampton County Sheriff’s Office’s first best.”

Later in the forum, Wyche noted that some of his employees have come to him asking why “that man” is putting them down.

Potter took issue with that statement and said that he has never put any Southampton County deputies down but has rather criticized policies and advocated for helping an already-capable staff grow.

Potter stated that Wyche had emailed the Isle of Wight County sheriff to complain about Potter in connection with police pursuits.

Potter said pursuits need to be guided by policy, and that Southampton County’s pursuit policies need to be updated.

Wyche stated that he does not go on Facebook and complain about another agency, noting that this would not be professional.