Floyd County’s two sheriff candidates clashed over the best experience needed for the job during a Facebook Live forum hosted by the county GOP.
More than 100 people tuned in to watch — and comment on — the matchup between former chief deputy Tom Caldwell and Dave Roberson, commander of field operations before he took a leave of absence for his campaign.
Panelists were Randy Smith, cofounder of the Rome Tea Party, and Alvin Jackson of 100 Black Men of Rome-Northwest Georgia. The hour-long Thursday night debate can be viewed on the Floyd County Republican Party Facebook page.
Smith and Jackson brought different sensibilities to the questioning, which allowed for a wide-ranging discussion. The candidates had relatively similar ideas on how to modernize and improve sheriff’s office functions, but split on the background necessary to actually get it done.
Caldwell highlighted his 13 years as Sheriff Tim Burkhalter’s chief deputy, underscoring his administrative experience and communication skills.
“The phone calls I’ve gotten over the years ...” he said, ticking off emergencies such as inmates dying in the jail, a fire in a cellblock and a deputy-involved shooting. “Those are all situations I’ve tackled before.”
Roberson spoke of his hands-on involvement in the daily workings of the agency and knowledge of conditions outside headquarters.
“I’ve had 25 years of boots on the ground, so these examples he gives — a lot of them, I was the one who responded,” he said.
Caldwell shot back that a sheriff needs administrative skills to protect the agency and the public.
“I can work the streets, but I’m running for sheriff,” he said.
Roberson, however, disputed the assertion that an overview is better than a close-up view.
“Boots on the ground make sure everyone’s safe; that nothing’s overlooked,” he said.
Policing was the topic Smith went back to several times. He asked if the candidates would enforce orders such as a mask mandate or a gun confiscation — as in the case of the couple in St. Louis, Missouri, who pointed weapons at Black Lives Matter marchers.
The Floyd County Sheriff’s Office will assist other agencies if asked, but its three assigned functions are serving warrants, providing security for the courts and running the jail.
With that understood, both candidates weighed in with their thoughts on the issues. Neither was supportive of the court order allowing St. Louis police to seize a rifle from the couple as evidence.
“I would not do it because the Second Amendment says you do not have to give up your guns just because people are uncomfortable with it,” Caldwell said.
Both candidates said they do wear masks in some situations, to allay other people’s fears of COVID-19, but it should not be mandatory.
“It’s a personal choice,” Roberson said. “The government getting involved, telling you you have to do it, I’m not in favor of that.”
Jackson asked about the agency’s 287(g) partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and no-knock warrants, saying they create distrust and are potentially harmful to local communities of color.
The ICE program is useful, both candidates said, because it provides federal help in dealing with local criminals who in the country illegally.
“It’s designed for jail inmates. We’re not kicking in doors, going around to arrest people,” Roberson said. “I look forward to continuing it.”
Caldwell said he’s “not necessarily happy the county pays for most of the program,” but he’s supportive of its use in the jail.
Neither candidate was willing to give up no-knock warrants, saying sometimes they’re necessary for the safety of the officers or to preserve evidence. But both said they should be rare and the justification should be well-researched and clear.
It’s a question of how you run your agency, they said — reiterating the same values when Smith asked about the “national attack on policing” and charges of racial prejudice and brutality.
“It goes back to two things: accountability and trust,” Caldwell said. “If your community trusts you” those problems won’t arise.
“Training and communication,” Roberson offered as his solution. “You lose your trust, you lose your people.”
Floyd County is one of the few in Georgia with a separate sheriff’s office and police department. The candidates also were asked about rumors of combining the two agencies.
“There’s always been talk about it,” Roberson said. “We have a good working relationship and hope to keep it that way. If the Floyd County Commission decides to do it, we’re ready.”
Caldwell said voters should be the ones to decide if they want a change of that magnitude.
“if it happens, it needs to be a referendum,” he said. “Sheriff is a political office. It can’t look like a power grab.”
The candidates also talked about their plans to improve the retention rate of experienced employees and the diversity in leadership positions. Courthouse security, local gangs and the drug problem were among the other issues touched on.
Early voting is underway in the Aug. 11 Republican runoff where the two are facing off. There is no Democrat in the race, so the winner will be the only candidate in the November general election.
Absentee ballots are available through the Floyd County Elections Office in the County Administration Building, 12 E. Fourth Ave.
That’s also where in-person voting will take place through Aug. 7. Hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be one Saturday opportunity, on Aug. 1 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
All precincts will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on election day.