ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) – On the eve of the August general election, candidates for Carter County sheriff spoke to News Channel 11 about the staffing shortages in the county jail and school resource officer program.
Mike Fraley beat Sheriff Dexter Lunceford in the Republican primary in May. Fraley is a long-time veteran of the Carter County Sheriff’s Office, retiring in 2020.
He faces Independent candidate Rocky Croy, also a veteran of the sheriff’s office.
Last week, Lunceford released a statement outlining severe understaffing in the department. He said the sheriff’s office was down 51 full-time positions.
Lunceford said that critically-low staffing forced him to move some officers back into the jail to cover shifts. As a result, only four school resource officers (SRO) will be in Carter County schools when classes start next week. Those four will only be covering the high schools in the district. The district has a total of 14 schools.
Both Croy and Fraley presented short and long-term solutions to getting SROs back in schools.
Fraley ran the SRO program at the sheriff’s office for 10 years. He said he grew the program from five deputies to an SRO in every school. He would look at consolidating some positions within the department to get more officers into schools as quickly as possible.
“I have been reviewing all the personnel at the sheriff’s department. It is not a quick fix, but it is a temporary solution to streamline some job duties, to get more officers out there on the streets,” Fraley said. “I’m going to have to re-evaluate a lot of positions and make some tough decisions, but my goal is to get as many schools covered as we can shortly.”
Croy said short-term solutions to the SRO shortage rest with the Carter County Board of Education, but they could look at bringing in private security.
“One thing they could look at doing would be hiring a private company to come in and do it. Armed security guards,” Croy said. “Of course, they’d have to be approved by the school, have to go through special training and everything, and it would be their control. That would be a temporary solution.”
In the long-term, Fraley said getting an SRO in every school will require work with the schools and the Carter County Commission.
“Long-term solution is to work with the school system and the county commission to get those positions filled again like it was when I left it,” Fraley said.
Croy said his long-term solution starts with addressing the short-staffing throughout the department.
“Once we get staffing back up, we’ve got to put people in there,” Croy said. “There’s no way that we can rely on just armed security guards because they don’t have the arrest powers and everything that a full-time officer would.”
Carter County school leaders revealed they have a multi-layer plan involving the sheriff’s office, Elizabethton Police, and the Tennessee Highway Patrol to work around the SRO shortage.
Both Fraley and Croy said they would work with those agencies to cover more schools.
One of the top challenges for the new sheriff will be addressing the 51 positions currently unfilled at the department.
Fraley said he has officers waiting to come back onto the force if he is elected.
“I’ve been approached by a lot of officers who want to come back to work under new guidance and new leadership, and I welcome those,” Fraley said. “It takes a lot of time, but I do have a lot of people that want to come back to work.”
Croy said the department needs to be aggressive and look in new places to find workers.
“We got Walter State. We got Donaldson. We got Knox County. We got several other counties that’s actually putting on these training schools. We go to those. Start trying to recruit people from there,” Croy said. “We run ads in the paper. We get with the media, Facebook and everything, and then we start recruiting around at other agencies.”
Lunceford blamed the short staffing on officers leaving for higher pay in other jurisdictions after a lack of adequate pay raises.
The county commission determines pay and benefits for county employees.
Fraley said streamlining the department could help convince the commission to provide higher pay and better benefits.
“If I can eliminate a few positions that can be freed up with working with less, then at some point it becomes an issue that they’re going have to sit down, and we’ve made cuts, and now the time has come to sit down and look at other options, how we can come up with funding for all the officers that we need,” Fraley said.
Croy said pay raises will not be on the table until next year as the county budget has already been set. He said next year he will be pushing for raises if elected.
“Next year, when we get the budget we can ask for more pay. Right now, they got a budget set up for the jailers. We got to get them back,” Croy said. “If we get the benefits back up and the commissioners go along with it, I think we can do a lot of stuff with it.”
Lunceford also said the county jail faces de-certification because of the staffing shortage. He said P.O.S.T.-certified officers are being brought from other duties to cover shifts at the jail, but not enough certified correction officers are working to keep the Tennessee Corrections Institute (TCI) certification.
Fraley said the issues with the inspection also have to do with infrastructure. He said bringing in a TCI compliance officer to examine the jail’s problems could help form a long-term plan.
“Some of the problems are maintenance issues. I looked at the staffing report. They were dinged on lack of training, lack of leadership, and having certified officers working in the jail. You have to be TCI-certified to work the jail, to keep it in compliance,” Fraley said. “Reach out with TCI and have them a plan of action of what we’re going to do to make sure we don’t get put in this situation again.”
Croy said keeping up with hiring will help the jail get back to re-certification if the jail does fail an upcoming inspection.
“We got to keep things in motion as far as getting back to re-certification. We got to get the people hired in. There’s some other, I think, discrepancies. I’m not sure exactly what those was,” Croy said. “We’ll make sure everything’s corrected out. That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, I can promise you that.”
Carter County polls open at 8 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The new sheriff will take office on Sept. 1.
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