JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL) – Three candidates have entered the race for interim sheriff in Washington County, Tennessee, following Ed Graybeal’s retirement in August.
The county commission will vote Monday at its regular monthly meeting to pick one of the three applicants who will serve as sheriff for the remainder of Graybeal’s term. Then, the voters will pick their top cop.
The first contender to throw his hat in the ring – even before Graybeal’s retirement announcement – was Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) Lt. Keith Sexton.
Sexton told News Channel 11 he’d planned to run for sheriff for over 20 years.
“I just have a passion for local law enforcement,” he said.
His goal, if chosen for the position, would be to grow the department.
“We need to bring law enforcement back to Washington County,” he said. “More deputies on patrol. You have to have that visibility. On any given night, there’s probably 5-6 deputies to cover this entire county, that is in my book, unacceptable.”
Sexton said that he aims to run a more transparent department than Graybeal did, with both the public and other county departments.
“I think we need to concentrate on having a partnership with fire, ems, and other local agencies for better police, fire, and ems coverage and I think the sheriff’s department can play a significant role,” he said.
In his letter of resignation to the county commission, former sheriff Graybeal wrote that he wished for his second-in-command, Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen to be the one to complete his term in office as acting sheriff.
Having spent her entire career with the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and serving as chief deputy since 2017, Laitinen said she feels prepared for the job.
“I’ll be the first female to ever run for sheriff in Washington County. I’m excited about that. And I know that I can take this department and make it even better and the next term,” she said.
Laitinen explained that if chosen for the role, she wishes to make a few changes.
“If possible, I would like to make some organizational changes. Some of our divisions, I feel, are too large and need to be restructured some,” she said.
She added that she’d like to see the detention center become certified by the state, as well as see some technological improvements, despite what she said she’s already been able to help improve.
“We’ve been fortunate, under my leadership, we’ve gotten body cameras, car cameras for all the officers. We’ve spent about half a million dollars on a new records management system – the other one had been in place since the jail opened in 1994 – so we’re excited about that,” she said.
Laitinen said she hopes to do anything in her power to make the jobs of the officers less stressful, easier, and safer if she’s chosen.
“I hope the commissioners will take all of my experience into consideration when they make their decision on Monday,” she said.
She said she respects both her opponents, but that she does not think they have the experience necessary to run a department and budget of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is not a job you can do on-the-job training. You know you can’t just step in and know how to supervise and manage 200 people and 500 inmates and $20 plus million,” she said.
Laitinen said she hopes the commission picks her to complete Graybeal’s final term and then allows the voters to decide next year who they want their next sheriff to be.
The final contender to join the race was retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) special agent Michael Templeton.
After serving as a DEA special agent for 25 years, mostly within Washington County, Templeton said he is tired of seeing the sheriff’s office go without taking serious action against opioid abuse and drug-related crimes.
“Opioid addiction and trafficking is at crisis levels here in the county,” he said. “The first thing I’m gonna do is stand up drug unit. Since 1776, I would be the 61st Sheriff and we’ve never had a drug unit which, to me, it’s shocking.”
He said he’s shocked at what he’s seen over the last 20-plus years in Tennessee.
“You have kids being raised by grandparents because their parents are addicted and lost custody. You have six in 100 babies born in Northeast Tennessee born addicted to opioids. And that’s unacceptable,” Templeton said.
Templeton said during his 10 years of serving as a drug law enforcement officer within Washington County, dealing directly with drug investigations and arrests, he said he learned what he needed to in order to change how local law enforcement deals with the crime avalanche.
“I’m going to stand up a drug unit immediately,” he said. “People ask how am I going to pay for their I’m not going to ask a dime from the county commission. There’s manpower at the county to create the drug unit, and people need to remember we’re going to take money from the drug dealers like we’ve always done.”
He explained that a few years ago, he worked on a case where he made a drug bust and the county seized a sizeable portion of land from the incarcerated drug dealer. Templeton said cases like that happen more often than people sometimes think.
But catching bad guys isn’t the only thing Templeton is interested in.
“We’re going to press the drug dealers every day but at the same time, not just the unit is going to be involved. Every employee of the sheriff’s office is going to be involved with reaching out a hand to the addicted and the families of the addicted,” he said.
He said he hopes to create more transparency within county offices.
“There’s 15 commissioners that represent 530 square miles of Washington County and 130,000 residents. They’re the voice of the people, so the sheriff needs to reach out to those commissioners, be available at every county commission meeting and every meeting where they’re talking about public safety,” he said.
Templeton added that the same thing goes for the mayor.
“The sheriff and the mayor, and the sheriff and the county commissioners have to have a relationship where they can talk to each other and take criticism and take it well and learn from it and work together. Through that partnership is the only way we’re going to make a wash the county safer,” he said.
Like both the other candidates, Templeton believes he is the best man for the job, especially after serving as a DEA special agent domestically as well as internationally.
“I just spent two and a half years in Afghanistan in a war zone the size of Texas hunting ISIS with U.S. Special Operations Forces and I know what I’m doing. We are at a critical stage and drug overdoses here in Washington County and drug trafficking and I’m the person that can help,” he said.
The county commission will meet at 6 p.m. Monday and pick the next interim sheriff.