They saved the biggest race for last.
At Monday’s Morristown Area Chamber of Commerce candidate forum, the race for Hamblen County Sheriff was in the anchor position.
Sheriff Esco Jarnagin, seeking his third term, squared off against Gary Lowe, the recently retired operations major from the Morristown Police Department.
Both men discussed their long and distinguished law enforcement and military careers, the situation facing the county jail and the county’s battle against drug abuse, particularly prescription pill abuse.
“I take my oath of office very seriously. I have a passion to serve and protect my family and my fellow man,” Jarnagin said, thanking the Fraternal Order of Police for its endorsement. “Your Constitutional rights, especially the Second Amendment to keep and bear arms, will be guarded at all times. My commitment is to make our neighborhoods as safe as possible.”
Lowe discussed his rise through the ranks of the MPD, his method of leading by example and how that method paid off in real world results.
“I have never asked nor ordered anyone to do anything that I myself have never done before,” he said. “I have always been willing to accept and take on new challenges. In the mid ‘90s, I took on the challenge of the highest crime ridden area in the city of Morristown and Hamblen County- public housing. In ‘99 I was rewarded for my crime-fighting efforts by being named Tennessee Police Officer of the Year in Nashville.”
Both men talked about the drug abuse epidemic, particularly in relation to prescription pill abuse.
“As sheriff I’m going to bring outside agencies to the jail. We’re going to do education,” Lowe said. “We’re going to bring in Helen Ross McNabb, Cherokee Douglas. We’re going to bring the hospitals. We’re going to bring inside the sheriff’s department people that’s not normally associated with law enforcement. We are going to educate these people and try to get them off these drugs to where your houses will quit being broken into and your cars being stolen.”
Jarnagin noted the jail is choked with drug offenders and offenders whose crimes are related to drugs, like stealing to pay for drugs.
“Until we get a handle on what causes people to take drugs, our system is failing us,” Jarnagin said. “… I don’t know what the solution is. I know what the problem is. We have a major problem and this country is going to fall, the whole country’s gonna fall, if we do not do something about the drug problem. I don’t know how to fix it, but I know we have a major, major problem.”
Jarnagin said the drug problem is like a gushing oil well and until the well is capped, no solution at the jail is going to be enough.
“We will continue to go ahead and take these people off the street and take these people out of your community to try and keep them from stealing and robbing and killing you but that’s not fixing the problem because when they get out they’ll go back to the old haunts,” Jarnagin said.
Despite that, Jarnagin said the county is approaching a time when a new jail facility is going to have to be built.
The current jail, which is built mostly underground, has mold and ventilation issues which are exacerbated by the overcrowding.
“My suggestion is when we build that facility to have facilities within that facility to help reconstruct these people’s lives,” Jarnagin said. “We are doing nothing but housing these people on a repetitious daily basis, they are in and out, in and out. I see the same people in and out all the time.
“We have got to address and we’re going to have to build a new facility. What we’ve got is an antique, so to speak.”
Lowe said inmate education is going to be a huge part of the solution. But there are also other methods to reduce the jail problem, like GPS ankle monitoring bracelets and more work crews earning reduced sentences.
“That will reduce the jail population plus cut back thousands of dollars that you have to provide on inmate upkeep,” Lowe said. “Let’s hire some more guards to take these guys out. Let ‘em pick the trash up, let ‘em improve the county, all besides working off their time and they get their two-for-one out there and that will help reduce the jail population.
“The jail is a bad situation. We’re going to have to spend a little money. We can fix it up, clean it up, prune it up. Put these guys to work inside the jail. Make ‘em be accountable to the corrections officers. There’s too much disrespect given to these corrections officers. They need to be trained better. They need to be put in charge of the inmates, and the inmates need to know that the corrections officers are in charge and what they say goes there.”
Lowe said being sheriff of Hamblen County is the last goal on a life-time long to do list in law enforcement.
“I want to be the guy to take the sheriff’s department to high standards, high accountability,” he said. “… I’ve give my entire life to public service and I’m not done yet. I have one more step.”
Jarnagin said he has a compassion to serve his fellow man.
“I have proven myself as sheriff of Hamblen County and I would like to continue to be the sheriff of Hamblen County because I know what the problems is,” he said. “… now is not a good time in these dangerous, uncertain times we live in. Now is not a good time to change leadership in Hamblen County.
“…I will continue to give you proven leadership, professionalism, integrity, accountability and progress and I’m asking for your vote and your continued support.”
Lowe said under his administration, residents will see deputies in their neighborhoods and subdivision outside the city limits.
“The office of sheriff is more than a position it is a job that requires active leadership,” Lowe said. “I am an effective leader who will lead by example. My name will not be on the patrol cars, to serve and protect will be on your patrol cars. Also drug round ups will be conducted regularly, not just in an election year.”