06/18/07 — Sheriff eyes bill pending in Raleigh

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Sheriff eyes bill pending in Raleigh

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on June 18, 2007 1:45 PM

As state legislators continue to work their way through a number of bills, Wayne County's commissioners aren't the only officials watching the General Assembly with interest this year. Sheriff Carey Winders also is keeping a close eye on the developments coming out of Raleigh.

One issue that has long been of particular importance to him, the N.C. Sheriff's Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and other law enforcement organizations is reducing the number of years necessary for retirement from 30 to 25.

"We want it in line with other law enforcement agencies across the nation. Most others allow retirement with fewer than 30 years of service," Winders said. "Thirty years is a long time."

He and others across the state also have been lobbying to have health care benefits for local law enforcement officers extended into retirement. In most areas, he explained, the only options for retired officers are to purchase insurance at a much higher rate or to find a second job.

In Wayne County, county employees can earn retirement benefits, but only after 25 years of continuous service.

But, Winders continued, even though Wayne County's legislators have indicated their support for those ideas, he is not expecting to see any action happen this year.

"This has been an ongoing thing," he said. "This is nothing new. It's been talked about since the 1980s."

State Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said opposition has come from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the N.C. League of Municipalities.

"They don't want (municipalities) to bear the cost. They oppose it, saying that it could open the door by singling out a single class of employees," Pate explained. "But I can tell you there's a difference between what a law enforcement officer might face every day, compared to what other local government employees might face, so there is some justification for this."

State Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, however, said the issue wasn't one the state could solve.

"It's a tough issue, but it's something the counties need to work out with their employees," he said. "There's a limit to what we can do. This is something that should be handled locally. I believe we should pay them, but I don't think it's my job to tell (the localities) what to do."

Other legislative issues concerning the sheriff involve two Senate bills that would propose criminal records be expunged of certain types of non-violent crimes. One bill would apply only to juveniles, while the other would wipe the slate clean for anybody after 10 years.

Winder's concern is that some of the offenses being listed as nonviolent aren't as innocuous as they might seem, even though both bills have provisions that any charge involving assault, a sexual offense or a weapon would remain. Still, he said, that leaves open a range of larceny, drug and threatening charges.

And while Kerr said that he thinks only the juvenile bill has any real momentum, Winders is still concerned that the public might not be able to find out important information.

"When you expunge something, that's like saying it never happened," he said. "We understand that rehabilitation is necessary to put people back into society, but on the other hand, we're here to protect people, too."

Kerr, however, is hopeful that bill might have some legs.

"I would say the youthful offenders is a definite issue. It's certainly very easy for young people to make a mistake," he said, adding that as an attorney, he has met plenty of adults who made mistakes as teens and still turned out to be upstanding citizens. "We've got to be careful about it, but North Carolina is tougher on this than just about any other state. I think you'd have to treat each case individually, and it's a decision that would have to be made by the district attorney and certainly the sheriff would have a say."

Winders, along with almost every other law enforcement officer in the state, also is watching a House bill designed to help combat street gangs by implementing longer sentences and making it a crime to be involved with street gang activities.

It's a bill that Pate said is likely to receive a lot of discussion.

"We've got to get a handle on this. It's definitely on our agenda. We've got to attack this problem," he said.

But the most important aspect of the bill, Winders said, is not punishments it lays out. It's the proposal to set aside $10 million for gang prevention and intervention programs.

"The big thing we need to do is concentrate on educating our youth in schools about why it's not a good idea to be a gang member or take part in gang activities. That's probably the most important thing you can do," Winders said.