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What's Driving The Race For Mecklenburg County Sheriff?

Mecklenburg County's sheriff candidates are, from left, Antoine Ensley, Irwin Carmichael and Garry McFadden.
Mecklenburg County's sheriff candidates are, from left, Antoine Ensley, Irwin Carmichael and Garry McFadden.

This year's Democratic primary campaign for Mecklenburg County Sheriff has been a lively one, with a first-term incumbent facing two outspoken challengers. They've criticized the sheriff over his support for the federal immigration enforcement program known as 287(g), for eliminating in-person jail visits and for the jail's use of solitary confinement. 

Current Sheriff Irwin Carmichael faces challengers Garry McFadden and Antoine Ensley in the 2018 North Carolina primary election.  

Both Ensley and McFadden said they'd like to end the county's 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.  McFadden said the program has soured the relationship between immigrants and police.

"Victims will not come forward to testify or even give me information about crimes," McFadden said. "Witnesses who probably witnessed many of my murders … These people are scared."

The county's participation in the 287(g) program started in 2006 under former Sheriff Jim Pendergraph. Carmichael said the program is still necessary because the sheriff's office needs to be able to identify foreign-born suspects.

"It's about knowing who is in this community and also who is in our jail," Carmichael said, "And the only way to know this is through this federal database."

But Carmichael's other challenger, Antoine Ensley, disputed the idea that the sheriff's office needs the program to identify jail inmates.

"That's just not a true statement," Ensley said. "I can't tell you how many times I have arrested people in this community where I did not know the identity. I eventually got their identity. There is nothing in that agreement that says that the sheriff needs this agreement to identify people."

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All three candidates have had careers in and around law enforcement and the justice system.  

Carmichael is a retired Charlotte firefighter. While a firefighter, he joined the sheriff’s office as a volunteer reserve officer. Eventually, he came on part-time to train other officers and run crime prevention workshops. After retiring from the fire department, he made captain in the sheriff’s office in 2013. He was elected sheriff in 2014.  He said his experience sets him apart.

"You know it's being in the office," Carmichael said. "I mean, I have worked in the sheriff's office since 1986, where no one else has."

Ensley is a former CMPD officer and police chief in the town of Fletcher, North Carolina, near Asheville. He’s making his third run for sheriff. He lost to Carmichael in the 2014 Democratic primary, 53 percent to 47 percent. He works as a human resources officer for the city of Charlotte.

McFadden grew up in rural South Carolina and came to Charlotte to attend Johnson C. Smith University. He then worked 36 years with CMPD -- including 20 years with the homicide unit. He had a reality TV show called "I Am Homicide" on the cable network Innovation Discovery.


McFadden and Ensley also disagree with Carmichael’s decision to end in-person jail visits and replace them with video calls. Ensley said there is a place for video:

"It may be a great tool," Ensley said. "I say tool, but it should not be the predominant way in which people visit their loved ones."

Likewise, McFadden said he would bring back in-person visits, but keep the video option.

Carmichael defended the change, saying the old policy did not guarantee people visits. With video, family members can call whenever they want and as often as they want. Two calls a week are free, but additional calls beyond that require users to pay a fee. 

"Your loved one is able to see inside your house," he said. "They're able to see inside their homes. They're able to see the pictures on the walls. The family members [when they used to] come down here, [a visit] was not guaranteed."

The two challengers also want to reform the jail's longtime practice of putting violent prisoners into solitary confinement. McFadden said those prisoners should get professional help.

"If you have a person [who] needs to be isolated from the rest of the population, putting that person in a cell without help - you're not helping the person," he said. "You're just prolonging the problem."  


McFadden and Ensley have not made as big a deal out of another issue: Carmichael's plan to raise money with a raffle of firearms - including assault-style rifles. But other groups have.  

Carmichael said he has a lot of Second Amendment fans among his supporters, and did a similar raffle in 2014. But three days before this year’s drawing, a gunman killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Florida.

"It just took one second to make [the] decision," Carmichael said. "[I'm] not doing this."

He added that he won't do a raffle again. 

This primary is an important one. With no Republicans or anyone else running, whoever wins the May 8 primary will be the next Mecklenburg County Sheriff.


Listen to full interviews with the three candidates in a replay of the April 25, 2018 Charlotte Talks

David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.