Sheriff Roger Garrison and his opponent, David Waters, a lieutenant with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, both took the opportunity to take shots at each other in a heated debate in the sweltering, crowded room.
Among the crowd was the Messina family, whose son, Andrew Messina, was shot and killed May 1 during a standoff with sheriff’s deputies.
The family was accompanied by a group of about 20 supporters who wore homemade T-shirts that read “I Am Andrew.”
The debate was the first in a series of eight such forums planned for contested races by the Cherokee County Republican Party this summer leading up to the July 31 primary and took place at Republican headquarters in Towne Lake.
“I’ve been your sheriff for the past 20 years,” Garrison said in his introduction. “I’ve spent that time protecting your families and leading the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office to being the first nationally accredited sheriff’s office in the state of Georgia.”
Garrison said that distinction is held by less than 3 percent of law enforcement divisions nationwide.
“Tonight, we’re at a crossroads in this election,” Garrison said. “I submit to you that my opposition has spent the last 10 years running an animal control unit in Forsyth County.”
Garrison called the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office “troubled,” pointing out its budgetary and personnel issues and alluded to Waters’ several positions within the department.
“He’s held them but he hasn’t been able to hold on to them,” Garrison said.
But Waters said the sheriff has never had to go through an administration change.
“During an administration change, when you’re at the top … you will be reassigned,” Waters said.
In his opening, Waters said Cherokee County has seen a 28 percent increase in crime from 2008 to 2010.
“This is not effective law enforcement,” Waters said, adding he would reorganize departments to keep costs low for Cherokee taxpayers while making the department more efficient.
Garrison said he has kept the crime rate in the county low, despite the boom in population over recent years.
“We have over 220,000 people (in the county),” Garrison said. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve seen that population double from 90,000.”
Waters also acknowledged the Messina family and the teen’s supporters several times throughout the debate.
“My heart is with the family and the loved ones of Andrew Messina,” Waters said to applause.
As for his qualifications, Waters said he has attended all supervision, management, and executive management classes in Georgia as well as the “National Police Academy.”
Garrison said he would like to know what the “National Police Academy” is, and Waters clarified by saying he attended the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville, not the FBI Academy, one of two “national police academies,” he said.
“There is only one national academy, it’s the FBI National Academy,” Garrison said.
An audience member asked Waters how the experience gained from his Forsyth County position would prepare him to be sheriff.
“First off all, I want to clarify, I am not a dog catcher,” Waters said. “I work for special operations.”
Waters said his duties include supporting investigations and working crime scenes.
“My experience would be the entire agency,” Waters said. “I’ve commanded criminal investigations, uniform patrols, internal affairs … almost every entity within the sheriff’s office.”
Garrison told Waters he needs to correct his department’s website, because it apparently does not list some of the tasks he performs.
“It doesn’t say anything about crime scene processing,” Garrison said. “I’m just trying to get to the bottom of whatever it is you do in Forsyth County. You’re trying to convince these voters you want to be sheriff and your website says that for the past 10 years you’ve been in charge of animal control.”
One of Waters’ new ideas for the department is introducing what he referred to as school resource officer programs. Waters said it would be a support to campus police that “puts deputies inside the classrooms” to educate students.
“Campus police basically patrol the hallway, the parking lots, those kind of things,” Waters said. “We teach why you don’t text while you’re driving, why you don’t buy alcohol when you’re under the age of 21.”
Garrison said those concepts are already being taught in district schools and that Waters was not giving school police due credit.
“The county school police and the sheriff train extensively about working with and about dealing with active shooters,” Garrison said. “(School police) do an excellent job working in the school and we already do everything that you’re talking about.”
An audience member addressed the Messina killing, asking whether either candidate would have done anything differently and what can be done going forward to heal any hurt in the community.
Waters answered first, saying he would not have had negotiators standing at the doorway when trying to communicate with Messina. The teen reportedly never engaged in communications with officers who were about 10 feet away from the doorway, according to police.
“You don’t go face-to-face with somebody with a handgun,” Waters said. “We will not allow negotiations at the front door.”
Waters said the situation should have never gotten to that point and law enforcement should have backed off.
“The best thing in a negotiator’s toolbox is time,” Waters said. “From everything we’ve heard … time (was) on our side. There was no threat inside.”
Garrison said the chain of events unfolded quickly and his officers were doing everything they could possibly do to save Messina’s life, putting themselves in harm’s way throughout the ordeal.
“We’ve all put ourselves in harm’s way in a time when, looking back, it probably wasn’t the best decision in the world,” Garrison said. “But (deputies) thought that they were in the process of building a rapport with that young man. They had no idea … they didn’t have a crystal ball … to see how things were going to go down.”
“It’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t we just back off?’” Garrison said. “If we just backed off we’d be sitting here today saying, ‘Why didn’t we do something?’”
Garrison said he has met with the family and has a lot of compassion for their situation, saying he knew if the situation were reversed, he would feel the way they do.
“But I assure you, those police officers did everything that they could possibly do to avoid that situation ending up the way it did. It’s police work, it’s not always pretty.”
When the two candidates were allowed to ask each other questions, both took shots at each other’s quality of character.
Garrison said since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 6,000 soldiers have lost their lives fighting to protect freedoms — primarily the freedom of the right to vote.
“Why then, did you not see fit to register to vote until 2008 when you decided you wanted to run for sheriff and then only vote three times?” Garrison asked.
Waters said he has voted more than that, however, his voter history documented by the Georgia Secretary of State said he has voted a total of five times, beginning in 2008.
“When you’re a commander with a law enforcement agency and you’re responsible for 15-plus troops, it’s hard for you to take off and go vote,” Waters said. “My troops were important and I didn’t abandon my troops.”
Garrison’s voter registration record said he has voted 31 times since 1994 when records were electronically collected.
But Waters said he does believe in everyone’s right to vote and that it is a choice.
“It’s my right to vote and it’s my right not to vote,” Waters said. “I made a choice and I still think the choice is the best.”
Waters also took a freedom of speech hit against Garrison, asking why on Jan. 13 he called Waters’ sheriff when Waters and Chief Deputy Robbie Hamrick came to a meeting of the Grassroots Conservatives of Cherokee County.
Garrison said Hamrick works at the pleasure of the sheriff of Forsyth County.
“I think it’s improper that he is sending his command staff personnel over to campaign against a sitting sheriff and I told him that if my chief deputy were over in Forsyth County undermining his administration, I would fire him,” Garrison said. “That’s why Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is in such shambles.”
“Such shambles? This man don’t work for you. He works for (Sheriff) Ted Paxton,” Waters said, pointing to Paxton who was in attendance in support of Waters. “He doesn’t have a problem with it.”