Candidates spar over departmental issues 10/30/2015

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 30, 2015

Shown from left are Sheriff Dennis Darby, Otis Griffin and Mark Whitten, at the conclusion of the debate. The Panolian photo by Rita Howell

Candidates spar over departmental issues

By Rupert Howell
Incumbent Sheriff Dennis Darby was the hunted in Tuesday night’s debate that pitted him, former sheriff Otis Griffin and Democratic nominee Mark Whitten in a forum in front of approximately 200 onlookers who filled the Sardis Courthouse’s main courtroom.

Darby may have received most of the jabs, but was usually quick to counter during the hour and half long debate with questions posed ranging from gang violence, drugs, trust, unsolved investigations, violence in schools and budgets.

High school students from North and South Panola had been asked to come up with questions for the candidates. Dan Lehman of Desoto County served as moderator.

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Candidates were given time for opening statements prior to the pre-arranged questions and made closing statements at the end of questioning and rebuttals directed by Lehman.
Among subjects agreed upon were the fact that Panola County, like elsewhere, has a drug problem, and gang activity is often the source of crime problems, especially drugs. All agreed that they would seek additional salary for their deputies and that the sheriff’s department budget needed to be increased.

Darby used his time defending his record of being hard on drugs and “shutting gangs down,” saying he has been successful, “.  . . taking out drug cartels here in this county,” and cited a figure of 1,100 drug charges alone.

Both Griffin and Whitten challenged whether that many arrests had been made with Griffin later stating he had checked Circuit Clerk’s records and asked, “Where are all the felony arrests?”
Whitten called for additional patrols in the county, stating that he had not seen a deputy patrol car in eight months on his road in Tocowa, citing the need for patrol cars in rural areas.
Darby questioned the comments concerning lack of patrols on Tocowa Road, stating, “We’ve arrested about half your neighbors out there.”

During Whitten’s rebuttal he stated, “I know who he’s talking about and he’s been in and out of jail three times. Why was a convicted felon let out the first time?” Whitten wondered aloud.
During another topic’s rebuttal, Darby explained that his department could only make arrests and turn the case over to prosecutors.

Darby said the only unsolved murder during his term was that of Jessica Chambers who was brutally attacked and later died from injuries after she was beaten and burned in her car last December. The case was followed nationwide and drew investigators from federal and state agencies not to mention national news attention.

“We’ve only got one pending  murder, Jessica, and we’re fixing to solve that thing,” Darby said, adding that the only other unsolved murders “are those that happened before I went into office.”
Griffin would later state that to his knowledge all murders during his term had been solved and continued to question Darby’s drug arrest figures stating, “Where are the convictions?”
Darby countered stating, “We do have task force records. Anybody can see them,” and suggested Griffin was looking in the wrong place.

Both Griffin and Whitten claimed two deaths at Hilltop Grocery on Curtis Road were unsolved.
Griffin, who residence is near the grocery, stated that it was a known hot spot for drug deals long before the homicides.

“The Hilltop homicides were solved in two days,” Darby responded during rebuttal.

Darby took aim at areas to the west with a high crime rate, stating, “Coahoma County has the highest crime rate in the country. More gangs, more drugs.”

Candidate Griffin, who is chief deputy and jail administrator in Coahoma County, rebutted by asking people to check the crime rate in Coahoma County.

“Clarksdale is a municipality to its own with its own police department. Check the crime rate in Coahoma County. Check how many unsolved homicides we got. We don’t tolerate it,” he rebutted.

Darby stated, “Bad people are not welcome . . . It (crime rate) almost got away from us. We have the best department in the state and are open to constructive criticism,” Darby said.
Griffin also took aim at Darby’s record with lawsuits, stating that crime rate and lawsuits had increased under Darby’s tenure during his closing statement.

The sheriff’s department and Panola County were named in lawsuits concerning department personnel dismissals between employees and personnel in the Como Police Department.
“You won’t have a lawsuit hanging over my head,” Griffin said.

In his final statement Whitten also referred to lawsuits stating that after his years of service in law enforcement, “You’ve never spent a dime in a lawsuit.”

Both Darby and Whitten agreed that trained and licensed school personnel such as teachers should be allowed to carry guns in schools and they would support such laws if passed by the Mississippi Legislature.

Griffin said teachers are there (at school) to teach and thought the better answer to protecting students was more school resource officers.

Darby noted that he would approve, “As long as someone had the common sense and ability (training) to do it.”

“It (a school shooting) could happen right here. We’ve got our own crazy folks here in Panola County,” Darby noted.

Although not mentioning names, Whitten addressed circulating rumors that he was in the election to draw votes away from Darby and would be given a position in Griffin’s department if Griffin were to win.

“I haven’t been dragging my wife and child all around Panola County for the past eight months to get anybody elected other than myself,” Whitten said.