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The 2022 midterm elections are the first of the Biden era. They're also the first since the 2020 census, which means there are new congressional districts. There are U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, along with many state and local races.

In the race for Mecklenburg County sheriff, jail safety in Charlotte is the main concern

Sheriff Garry McFadden (left) debates his challengers Gina Hicks (center) and Marquis Robinson (right).
Lisa Worf
Sheriff Garry McFadden (left) debates his challengers Gina Hicks (center) and Marquis Robinson (right).

The race for the next Mecklenburg County sheriff will be determined by next week’s Democratic primary since there are no Republicans running. The management of the jail in uptown Charlotte and how it affects safety there has become the main issue in the race among Sheriff Garry McFadden and challengers Gina Hicks and Marquis Robinson.

McFadden was elected in 2018 on a platform of incarceration reform. He quickly made changes that he says make the county’s two jails more humane places.

“We understand that everybody doesn't believe in what we are doing now for culture change," McFadden said. "But for me, it helps better the society and makes society safer."

But his opponents say the way he’s carried out the changes has made for a more dangerous environment. Gina Hicks worked for the sheriff’s office for 18 years, rising to the ranks of captain and assistant facilities commander at the main jail. McFadden fired her and several others when he took office, citing the state’s at-will doctrine for sheriffs.

“I want to restore the normalcy of the safety that we once had at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office and in the community," Hicks said. "I want to rebuild relationships that were torn."

Marquis Robinson worked for the sheriff’s office for 25 years. He retired in January as a courthouse deputy.

“The staff have to feel, No. 1, that they are as safe as possible and, No. 1, that the agency has their back,” Robinson said

Hicks says under McFadden, the sheriff’s office has taken a lot of deterrent factors away that helped reduce fights.

For example, she says, the sheriff disbanded a team to search for weapons. McFadden said he did that because they violated “the rules and regulations” against a female inmate. Recently, he created another unit that does weapons searches.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police sent a complaint to county leaders and state regulators in December. It acknowledged that “assaults on staff are nothing new,” but said they have dramatically increased under McFadden.

Sheriff’s office data show assaults on officers and among inmates have increased at the main jail from 106 in the 2018 fiscal year to 348 last year. 2022 is on pace to fall just below 2021’s numbers.

The FOP recently hosted a debate, moderated by WBT. Right away, McFadden went on the defensive in his opening statement.

“It's very uncomfortable to come in a very hostile situation here, not being greeted at the door as a law enforcement officer, not being welcome,” McFadden said.

The candidates were asked whether employees at the jail uptown are safe.

“The staff know that they are not safe, they are not respected, and that this leadership refuses to have their back,” Robinson said.

“Well, you think about is any jail safe in America? So, we're talking about safe. Has it ever been safe?” McFadden said.

“For 18 years, I don't know where Mr. McFadden has been, but we were safe at the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office. This is new,” Hicks said.

A state inspector in December said the jail didn’t have enough employees to keep inmates and staff safe and told the sheriff he needed to transfer inmates to get the population down.

In an interview, McFadden said his administration is being singled out for circumstances beyond his control.

“It has always been a staffing problem and vacancies under every administration," McFadden said. "Here with COVID and the media and everybody else, we just magnify it to ‘it’s an issue.’”

Hicks and Robinson say safety and McFadden’s management are big reasons people are leaving the department. Those concerns were noted by a retired major at the jail, who told WFAE McFadden created “chaos” with his management style. They say McFadden doesn’t treat staff well and expects them to come up with answers to problems he should be solving. Robinson brought that up at the debate.

“We always respected the sheriff — may not agree with everything — but we respected him," Robinson said. "But this is the only administration that they had zero respect for."

“I'm the first Black sheriff,” replied McFadden. “Maybe that's the problem, Mr. Robinson — maybe that they had you in a culture where you respect them more than you respect me.”

McFadden refers to that as the "good ole boy culture" that used to run the sheriff’s office — and that he says his opponents want to return to. Both Hicks and Robinson are Black.

“It's not about being the first Black sheriff, Black anything," Robinson replied. "It's about doing your job — doing it the right way."

WFAE asked Hicks if she considers herself part of the good ole boy system.

“I would like to know what that means,” Hicks said. “I would like a definition on that. Never got a definition on what that means, so I can't say I was part of the good ole boys’ system. I came up through the ranks under three sheriffs.”

McFadden insisted at the debate the jail is safe.

“It has been safe since Nov. 2 because there has not been one violent assault in the Mecklenburg County Detention Center since Nov. 2,” McFadden said.

Since then, incident reports show inmates have punched officers in the face and hit them with handcuffs. But both Robinson and Hicks say they’ve heard jail staff is feeling safer.

“I will say this, it has turned around," Hicks said. "It took a lot of notoriety for it to turn around."

That’s partly because, she says, McFadden has undone some of his changes.

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Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.