Candidate profiles: Macon County sheriff, part 1

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photo by Vickie Carpenter

Early voting across North Carolina begins today (April 28) with the Primary voting day set for May 17. Leading up to the primary, The Macon County News will publish candidate profiles for local offices. This week is Part I of the sheriff’s candidate profiles with Clay Bryson, Bob Cook and Dereck Jones.

Candidates were asked to provide a short bio and were asked the same questions.

Clay Bryson

Captain Clay Bryson was born and raised in Macon County and has spent half of his life, 21 years to be exact, as a law enforcement officer with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office.

Bryson enrolled in Basic Law Enforcement Training at Southwestern Community College in the Fall of 1999 to begin his career and on April 11, 2000, Bryson’s 21st birthday, he took his Oath of Office with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office. In January 2005 Bryson received his first promotion within the agency and has spent the last 21 years working in various capacities and now serves as Captain over Patrol.

Throughout his career, Bryson has served in many roles within the Sheriff’s Office, first as a patrol deputy. From there, he began working his way through the ranks as a corporal, sergeant, first sergeant, narcotics investigator, SWAT commander, K9 Supervisor/ Trainer, and now as Captain over Patrol.

Bryson and his wife Ariel have been married since 2014 and currently reside in the Cullasaja Community of Macon County. Bryson is the proud father of four daughters and in 2019 became a grandfather for the first time. Bryson attends Community Bible Church in Highlands and is an active member of the community.

Bob Cook

Bob Cook is married (newly) with four daughters, nine grandchildren and one on the way plus one great grandson.  He was born and raised in Newton, Iowa.  He joined the Navy in August 1972 during the Viet Nam War and remained in the Navy until August 1992 during the Gulf War.  Cook retired after earning the rank of Chief Petty Officer with Surface Warfare Qualifications.  

He has three years of college through the Columbia College, Columbia, Mo., and an Associates in Arts degree through the Los Angeles Community College.  

Upon retirement from the Navy, I went to the Police Academy in Jacksonville, Fla., after which I was hired by the Jacksonville Beach Police Department, Jacksonville Beach, Fla.  After approximately two and a half years, I applied to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office where I remained for approximately 20 years.  As a law enforcement officer, Cook has experience in Patrol, Evidence Technician, Traffic Officer, Burglary, Scrap Metal Task Force, Economic Crimes (Food Stamp Fraud), Gang Unit, Homicide Unit where he was on the Aggravated Battery Squad. He also spent approximately 14 years working in Narcotics where I was also on the Violent Crimes Task Force and the DEA Task Force.

Dereck Jones

Dereck Jones and his wife Jessica – who works as a public health nurse –  have three children.  He have served as a law enforcement officer since 2005, first with the Highlands Police Department and presently with the Macon County Sheriff’s Office, totaling over 17 years. 

“I am the only candidate who has experience in every division under the Sheriff’s Office running for this position.  I have served as a detention officer, deputy sheriff, corporal/field training officer, Special Response Team, patrol sergeant, juvenile investigator, criminal investigator, lieutenant, and currently captain – jail administrator who has overseen a budget of at least $2.5 million and was tasked with updating the detention center policies and procedures in 2019,”  said Jones.

Jones graduated Franklin High School in 2000, Southwestern Community College in 2008 with an Associate of Arts degree, and Western Carolina University in 2012 attaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice. He is also employed as an adjunct instructor of law enforcement training at Southwestern Community College where he instructs Basic Law Enforcement Training cadets, National Park Service, in-service training, and anything else at the request of the college.

Why are you running for office?

Bryson: “With Sheriff Holland’s announcement that he will be retiring at the end of his current term, after much prayer and with the support of my family, I decided that I wanted to be part of progressing the sheriff’s office forward. I have been asked many times by many people why I don’t go somewhere else to make more money and the answer is simple – Macon County is my home. This is where I grew up; where my children and grandchildren are growing up. As a father, my goal has always been to protect them, love them, and defend them to the best of my ability. I know that I can’t always be by their side, so what better way to protect them than to work for an agency that allows you to face the evil in our communities head-on.

“I want to further our agency just as Sheriff Holland has worked to do for many years. The honest truth is, no, we aren’t exactly where we need to be, but I want to continue to build on what so many in this department have worked hard to create. Just like criminal enterprise is constantly evolving, so is law enforcement and I want to ensure that we evolve quicker and smarter for the betterment of my friends and neighbors.”

Cook: “I am running for office because I see a need for a course correction.  Prior to my announcement in April 2021, I had been approached by several citizens in Macon County who related their concerns to me.  Most of these concerns centered around the drug problem in Macon County.  Additionally, I was told by several citizens they would never vote for a member of the Sheriff’s Office again.   They wanted a change in leadership. They felt disenfranchised and saw what they considered as the ‘good old boy club’ being treated differently than everyone else.  I felt that the only way to ensure these concerns were addressed properly was to no longer sit on the sidelines.  I decided to enter the race as a candidate to make a difference not only in the lives of the citizens of Macon County, but also in the operation of the Sheriff’s Office.”

Jones: “Macon County is my home.  This election and change of administration is  not about reinventing the wheel, but about putting the right person in office to move this county forward.  I want to see the best for Macon County and feel that with my extensive experience, education, leadership, and communication skills, I am the candidate that will move this agency forward. This isn’t something that I take lightly, as I have been preparing for this day for many years.” 

The drug problem in Macon County and surrounding areas is epidemic. How do you think law enforcement can strengthen its response to these problems?

Bryson: The drug tragedy in Macon County continues to grow; drug dealers are advancing quicker than law enforcement resources can evolve and it seems like we are always one step behind. My number one priority to the citizens of Macon County if elected as your next Sheriff, is to protect you and your families with the same vigilance I protect my own. And I am confident that one of the most important ways of doing that is to continue fighting the war on drugs. For most of my entire law enforcement career, I have prioritized combating this horrible epidemic and I assure you I will continue to do so as long as I serve Macon County. My approach to attacking Macon County’s drug problem centers around pooling resources and looking at all angles. Incarceration isn’t going to solve the tragedy impacting our friends and neighbors struggling with drug addictions. That is why I plan to constantly seek out grants and funding opportunities to make mental health resources and substance abuse treatment more readily available and accessible in Western North Carolina. We need to offer our community members an alternative to turning to drugs and the power and knowledge to break free from addiction.

Cook: I am uniquely suited to address the drug epidemic in Macon County.  As I have noted, I have spent approximately 14 years as an undercover Narcotics Detective.  As such, I have experience in making hand to hand drug buys for a $20.00 crack or heroin purchase to as much as multiple kilogram amounts of methamphetamine.  I also have been the affiant on 99 separate telephone facility wire intercepts.  As such, I have had to learn to step back and look at whatever the situation is and think outside the box to develop a successful plan of attack.  I feel that my experience in that area coupled with my leadership and management experience makes me uniquely and more qualified to address the burgeoning drug problem.  

We can strengthen the response in several ways.   I intend on installing a drug tip hot line and making the supervisor over narcotics responsible to responses to the complaints.  Many people in our county do not have smart phones or internet service and this will ensure they are all able to register complaint.  Next, I will meet with the Assistant Supervisor in Charge of the DEA as well as other federal authorities to discuss our needs. I intend to ask for a partnership with our federal partners who will work with us and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to ensure we are getting the sentences we need to rid our community of those who supply the poison to our families.

Jones: I have been blessed to have worked with some really good law enforcement professionals over the years while on patrol and in investigations.  We are all fighting the same problem and dealing with many of the same offenders across jurisdictions.  I have said from the time I announced my candidacy for sheriff that we must work together to fight this issue.  I want to work with other agencies around the area (city and county), state, and federal agencies and pool our resources to combat the ever growing drug problem.  At the same time, we must continue to expand upon mental health and substance abuse programs within the detention facility and beyond to help those in need that request assistance. I have a proven track record of doing just that while being the jail administrator since 2018.

What specific areas within the existing department can be changed in terms of budgetary items to fund additional officers in Nantahala, is it even possible?

Bryson: As the new Captain over patrol, I have gotten a crash course in the struggles our agency faces to cover all 500 miles of Macon County. With much of my career being spent on patrol, I have experienced the shortages — but it wasn’t until I became Captain that I was able to see the administrative and structural difficulties of ensuring coverage across the county. It isn’t as simple as promising extra bodies in remote areas — it’s a complex puzzle of peak call times, types of calls received, areas that can afford to go with less to bolster other areas of need. I am the only candidate who is currently in a position to transition to Sheriff with the immediate knowledge of the agency’s needs and budget from day one. One of the first ways I plan to accomplish this is to refocus the agencies SRO [School Resource Officer] program and to improve the program for all these officers to be more than SROs — I want them to be active community law enforcement officers that are geared toward proactive policing and reform. SROs play an invaluable role in our agency. They are often the first faces our youngest community members meet and may be the first law enforcement officers our children encounter. I want to boost their role in the agency as focusing our SROs on being the first line of defense for proactive policing and reaching the next generation. This starts within our schools and each individual community. This proactive approach, outside of the day-to-day in-school role of an SRO will increase the responsibility of SROs to be entire community representatives.

Cook: “Considering the Nantahala Community currently has only as a School Resource Officer in their community, they absolutely need additional officers.  In 2007, Nantahala was given four Deputy positions specifically for the Nantahala area.  They were never stationed out there.  In 2017, once again it was promised they would get some officers out there for coverage and to this day, the only time they get a patrol unit out there is in response to a call for service.  

“Since April 2021, I have made the proposal to get patrol coverage to not only Nantahala, but to Scaly Mountain, Otto and the Cowee area among others.  I spoke to a MCSO Street supervisor and asked what it would take to get coverage into those areas. I was advised they would need seven road deputies, including the supervisor.  Currently they have five on a shift including the supervisor.  

“My plan would be to first meet with the Chief of Police in Franklin to discuss turning over the School Resource Officer positions inside their city limits to their responsibility, like Highlands is right now. That would give me one more per shift for a total of six.  Next, I would take the four K-9 Officers and place one per shift. The K-9 Officers would be stationed in a zone that would enable them to be mobile in the event of a requirement for their services.  Additionally, they would be primarily a backup officer to keep them free for K-9 duties. That would result in seven per shift.  Lastly, I would look at the manning in the courthouse and other areas to see who may be able to move to this vital area.” 

Jones: I have spoken to many residents across the county who share the same concerns as the Nantahala community whether they live there or not.  I believe in adequate coverage for all citizens.  Many citizens make the comment that they are told that it depends upon call volume.  I have stated before and will state it again, the agency will be reorganized and all areas of the county will have adequate coverage at no additional cost to the taxpayer.

 

What do you see as the strongest area currently within the department?

Bryson: The strongest area within the Macon County Sheriff’s Office is our employees. The men and women who make up the agency — from administrative units, to courthouse security or from patrol to investigations — are dedicated to making Macon County better not only for their families, but for yours and for mine. Because they are our most valuable asset, it is imperative that we find ways to incentivize our agency and make the retention and recruitment of employees a priority, otherwise, we will continue to put time and money into training new officers only for them to leave to go to other agencies. It is my goal to create an environment within the agency that supports and uplifts all employees while providing them with the salary, benefits, and continued training needed to better themselves — which will allow them to better serve our community.

Cook: “While it is difficult to pick between the Detention Center and Patrol, the strongest area of the department appears to be the patrol division.  Both divisions conduct themselves with professionalism with limited manpower.  The Detention Center is one of the highest liability areas in the Agency.”

Jones: “Personnel.  We have one of the best group of law enforcement officers across the country who dedicate their lives to protect and serve the citizens of Macon County every day.  These officers don’t always get the recognition they deserve, but I appreciate each and every one of them more than they will ever know.”

What areas can be improved?

Bryson: I believe one significant area of improvement within the Sheriff’s Office comes with building community relations. At over 500 square miles, the majority of Macon County sits outside of the Franklin town limits. Macon County’s rural nature, paired with geographical challenges puts the outlying areas of the county just as Nantahala and Burningtown at a disadvantage. Those residents deserve the same response and service from the Macon County Sheriff’s Office as someone who lives in the center of town. I am a member of the Cullasaja Fire Department and have seen firsthand the integral role our volunteer fire departments and community centers have within our communities. I believe it is imperative as Sheriff to visit these departments and the various community clubs throughout Macon County on a regular basis to bolster community relations and hear from citizens about what needs to be done and how we can better serve the county. I don’t want this to be one occurrence — I want to be a regular face at these events in these various communities because I believe you, the citizens, know what is best for your neighbors. What Otto needs from me as Sheriff may be different from what Highlands needs and I want to hear that from those who work and live in those communities every day. That increased presence and visibility will only benefit the county as a whole. I can’t be successful as Sheriff without you, which is why I promise to work alongside you to continue to improve the quality of life here in Macon County, together.

Cook: While each area can be improved upon, the Investigations area can use some improving.  This is one of the most frequently mentioned areas that citizens are unhappy with whether it is with drugs or property crimes. 

Jones: Combating the drug epidemic, community relations/partnerships, and training in specific areas.

Lastly, is there anything else you would like voters to know?

Bryson: Having the unique advantage of experiencing first-hand the multitude of ways law enforcement serves Macon County, I promise to lead the Macon County Sheriff’s Office with experience and integrity to best serve the community as Macon County’s next Sheriff.

Cook: I would like the voters to know I am not one that is used to failure. I will also not lie to them.  The proposals I have made thus far are not new ideas.  The many be new to Macon County, but they are tried, and true methods used in most areas in the country.  If I says I will accomplish something, I will make every effort to get it done.  That is something the military instilled in me.  They will be able to count on me and I will not let them down. 

Jones: I am not a politician. I am a dedicated and passionate law enforcement professional with the education, training, and experience to lead the Macon County Sheriff’s Office into the future. It just happens to be a political position, but I am elected by the people and always for the people.

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