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Law enforcement leaders reflect on a decade of change

Mountaineer - 12/5/2022

Dec. 3—For nearly a decade, two individuals have worked side-by-side to keep Haywood citizens safe and lead major changes at the Haywood County Sheriff's Office.

Both were honored during a retirement reception this week where hundreds of people stood in line to share memories, say thanks and wish them well in the future.

Sheriff Greg Christopher took the helm at the sheriff's office in March 2013 after Christopher was chosen by the Haywood County Democratic Party to replace retiring Sheriff Bobby Suttles. He took office with 27 years of experience in the N.C. Highway Patrol.

His first act as sheriff was to name Haynes as his chief deputy.

In separate interviews, both recalled the major changes that occurred during their tenure.

Christopher said emergency communications were vastly improved by consolidating the county and sheriff dispatch services and by bringing the EMS services within walking distance of the sheriff's office.

"It has made situations that we find ourselves in so much easier when we're all in the same building working on the problems," he said.

Christopher said he is proud of the criminal suppression unit that goes into neighborhoods where extra help was needed.

"As we developed that team, we found that most of what they were working on was drug problems, so we brought in our drug unit. Now we've meshed those teams together so when we have problems, we have the resources and experience to be able to help negate some community problems that come up because of illegal drug activity," he said.

Expanding the K-9 force from one dog up to five at times has also made a difference, he said, as has upgrading the search-and-rescue functions under the direction of the sheriff.

"We have a Bearcat ordered to use as a special response vehicle in high risk situations dealing with dangerous individuals," he said. "It's bulletproof and could be used to make rescues if we needed to get close to somebody who was in danger."

Christopher also cited the implementation of a law enforcement service agreement two years ago with the town of Clyde, which did away with it's police department and now contracts with the sheriff's office for policing within the town limits.

"It was a big deal for us to help the town of Clyde when they needed it," he said.

Haynes departs, too

Haynes, who retired after 33 years in law enforcement, was philosophical in reflecting on the changes over the years, including the one of public attitudes toward officers and the profession.

He believes the lasting legacy of the times he and Christopher served together in the sheriff's office will be one of technological advances, better staffing and pay within the department and reducing jail recidivism by helping start the Haywood Pathways Center.

"The county was in desperate need for detention center staffing to help manage the inmate population, which was quite high," Haynes said. "The first dilemma was overcrowding. There were days when we had over 150 inmates, which was well above what we able to house."

The partnership with Haywood Pathways has been a critical piece of the puzzle to help those exiting the jail re-enter society and hopefully not end up back in jail again.

"Due to the sheriff's visionary attitude, the Pathways Center was birthed, not as an alternative to jail, but to be a follow-up warm handoff to bring people back into the community as law-abiding citizens," Haynes said.

Haynes said a second piece to addressing the problem was expanding the jail ministry and partnering with outside agencies to collaborate in addressing mental health and substance abuse factors.

"At end of day, a detention center is like a small medical facility with nurses, doctors, a medical director, a physician assist to see inmates by appointment on a daily basis," Haynes explained, noting contract providers were secured for these tasks. "That's reduced liability for the county and increased the likelihood of success. Sheriff Christopher led the way."

Haynes said increasing salaries within the department has made a significant dent in officer retention.

"The increase of pay, in large part based on the fiscal responsibility of the county commissioners investing in employees, helped us out across the board," Haynes said. "We were bleeding people to Buncombe and other areas. We're now competitive and short on open positions. It's a consistent blessing."

Technological advances made in the past decade included adding mobile patrol data terminals in each vehicle that allowed officers to have information at their fingertips; partnering with Lexipole, a company that drafts policies and procedures that comply with state statutes and is updated regularly; adding a computer-aided dispatch system that allows the real-time transfer of 911 calls straight to the field; the addition of dash cams and the coming deployment of body cams.

The sheriff's office has worked closely with the school system to greatly enhance readiness, and has systemically trained school employees in response techniques and tactics of what to expect if faced with certain situations.

"It's a partnership that has grown very strong," he said.

Thankful for past, looking forward

Both Christopher and Haynes specifically thanked their families who made numerous sacrifices so they could be ready to spring into action when need, which was often around the clock.

Christopher was quick to credit the entire team with the successes of the past decade.

"None of what I'm talking about was done by myself," Christopher said. "I've been blessed to have not only community support as well as church and nonprofit support, but our employees. I would rank our staff among the top in the state. The workload they carry is staggering, but they have a heart to serve people."

Christopher said having a strong second-in-command was a blessing for the people of Haywood County.

"I actually got the best chief deputy any sheriff in North Carolina could ever ask for. He has been tireless in working to help me make the sheriff's office what it is today. Jeff is an honorable man, full of character and has had the people's best interest at heart since he came in 2013," he said.

In retirement, Christopher is looking forward do doing ministry with his wife, Sherri, who he praised for putting up with him through the years.

"I thank God I married a praying woman," he said. "She is God-sent."

He also is looking to return to his roots and help operate a small truck farm with his uncle.

Looking back at his career, Haynes assesses all that he's gained — and lost.

"The challenges are great," he reflected. "You have to forge such a surgical balance between community, policy and statute, and you have the personal piece as well. That's the challenge to each and every decision."

Then there are the times those in law enforcement forego a normal family life.

"Every public servant has a story," he said. "You go in for a reason you don't recognize at age 21. But for me, once I was in there, a servant's heart became evident, and that's the reason you are doing this. You need to help somebody, even if it's at a personal cost. I can't tell you the number of holidays I've missed, the late nights, overnights, missed birthdays, things that are normal to most people and in retirement may become normal to me."

At age 52, Haynes isn't fully retiring, but simply switching gears. Through the years, he's taught basic law enforcement classes and conducted specialized training across the region.

"I'd like to go back to teaching," he said.


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