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Sheriff candidates ready to race

By Ed Brock

Two cops and a car salesman are challenging the county's two-term sheriff in a race that has proven to be unexpectedly quiet.

Sheriff Stanley Tuggle is facing three challengers, Clayton County police accident investigator Joe Mack Eckler, county police detective and state Rep. Victor Hill, D-College Park, and used car salesman Clifford Hall.

Tuggle, 54, lives in Jonesboro and has spent 31 years with the sheriff's department, eight of those years as sheriff. He came to the department fresh from his service in the U.S. Air Force and started out as a corrections officer.

Putting out signs and speaking at various community groups seems to be keeping his campaign moving along.

"There's a lot of interest in the campaign," Tuggle said.

One of the most important issues Tuggle thinks must be considered by voters is the importance of working well with the county commission.

"That has always been one of the most important parts of being an elected official is working with the board of commissioners to make sure the department has what it needs," Tuggle said.

And Tuggle said he knows what the department needs.

"We have to talk about growing the jail staff to keep up with the number of inmates," Tuggle said.

The number of inmates has grown in part because the state prison system, itself overcrowded, is not picking up convicted inmates from the county jails as quickly as it once did. Whereas there once would be an average of 150 convicted state prisoners in the jail at one time now there are often more than 200 and sometimes more than 300.

"That is a continuing problem," Tuggle said.

Also among Tuggle's future goals for the department is to educate the community on just what the sheriff's office does by creating a citizens sheriff's academy similar to citizens academies offered by several police departments in the county.

"We're going to do one to explain the sheriff's role and how it fits in with state government and county government," Tuggle said.

Tuggle said that the sheriff's office is defined in the state constitution and its primary responsibility in Clayton County is to maintain the county jail. Sheriff's deputies also secure the courtrooms in the county, serve court papers in the county as well as criminal warrants and civil processes.

It also engages in general law enforcement such as traffic enforcement, but in Clayton County the sheriff primarily assists the county police department in that matter, Tuggle said.

The sheriff's office currently employs 352 people and has an annual operating budget of about $25 million.

Eckler, 41, lives in Hampton and has been with the Clayton County Police Department for 15 years.

He said he couldn't comment on how well his campaign has been going until after the election. Like the other candidates he's been going door to door and talking to the people.

"The most important thing is to put the face and the message together and even to get the message out there," Eckler said. "All I want is the common, everyday ?we want to be helped by law enforcement rather than have law enforcement hold us down' people to vote for me."

Eckler said he wants to take a different approach to law enforcement, one in which law enforcement does not contribute to oppressing people in lower economic levels but is still tough on violent offenders.

He disagrees with the idea of forming a task force to deal with the gang problem because all it will do is give young people criminal records that will prevent them from ever achieving anything.

"Law enforcement wants to spend all the money on the graveyard and nothing on the cure," Eckler said. "We need to ask these kids what they need instead of what they're doing. It just seems like we're preventing people who have the talent to achieve and making it harder for them to do so."

Eckler would seek alternatives to prosecuting non-violent offenders, such as street level drug users.

"Victimless crime, that's when our churches, our support groups and our medical community needs to step in," Eckler said.

Eckler also said he would make supervisors work in the jail to cut down on overtime and to promote a "shoulder-to-shoulder" leadership approach. He would maintain a strong presence of deputies on the street to help keep children in school but "we will help parents, not hurt families with truancy charges."

Hill, 39, said he is optimistic about his campaign and he has also been making the rounds in the county.

"Just like I'm everywhere now, I'll be everywhere when I'm sheriff," Hill said.

A native of Charleston, S.C., he has lived in Clayton County for 12 years and currently lives in Riverdale. Hill said it's not just his law enforcement experience that qualifies him for the job, but also his personal experience. He grew up in a single-parent household and he said about 60 percent of Clayton County is experiencing the same situation.

In his youth he had the opportunity to make the same mistakes that other young people in his situation often make, Hill said.

"Fortunately I found an outlet," Hill said, referring to his practice of martial arts.

He also knew he wanted to be a police officer since the first grade.

At-risk youth in the county have to be educated and given alternatives to playing with guns, Hill said.

"It has to be a tough love program," Hill said.

Hill said the most important issue he wants to address is crime itself.

"Our county is drug infested and gang infested," Hill said. "In this situation we don't just need a new sheriff, we need a tough sheriff."

Not only does he want to form a task force, Hill wants to start a program similar to the CompStat system that began in New York in which the locations and types of crimes in the county are constantly fed into a computer database. Then the information is used to direct units to trouble spots.

"You can't fight a war without a map," Hill said.

The sheriff's office has to work together with the county police department and the municipal police departments within the county to address crime, Hill said. He also wants to use non-violent county inmates in work crews similar to those operated using state prisoners that are limited to working only on state roads.

Hall did not return calls seeking comment for this article. Hall has no police experience and Georgia does not require any to run for sheriff.

"I want to see what I can do to make this a better county," Hall previously said. "I just want to work for the people of Clayton County."

One issue that divides the candidates is whether the sheriff's office and the county police department ought to be merged. Hill sponsored a measure that would ask the voters in a future referendum about this, saying the consolidation would save money. He said Clayton was only one of a few counties that didn't get to vote on the issue. Tuggle has said he doesn't think the merger would produce any savings. Eckler said the county commission should resolve the issue of consolidation, but he also doesn't think it would save much money.

Hill has captured headlines this year for his fight with the county commission over an old law that would require a county employee to resign or take a leave of absence to run for office. Hill said the law has not been enforced in the past and questioned why it suddenly is being enforced. The U.S. Justice Department has asked for more questions to be answered, including how it was applied in the past, before it will pre-clear the measure. Because of the delay in pre-clearance, it has become a moot issue in this year's July 20 primary and both Hill and Eckler, along with other county employees, are still working while campaigning.

Race has not been raised by any of the candidates in the race, but Hill would be the first black sheriff in the county if elected.

Tuggle said that in his first two terms he has made the department more closely resemble the community, hiring more minority deputies and promoting more minority officers.

There is no Republican candidate for sheriff and barring some write-in effort in November the winner of the Democratic Primary would be the new sheriff.

The race for sheriff is a countywide election and any registered to vote in Clayton County can cast a ballot.