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Meet The Republican Candidates In The Escambia County Sheriff's Race

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WUWF Public Media

There are six candidates vying to become the next sheriff of Escambia County. Four of them, including the incumbent, will square off in the Republican Primary on Tuesday, August 30.

There is well over a century of law enforcement experience in the Escambia Sheriff’s race.

David Morgan has held the office for the last eight years, and has more than 30 years in the field, starting as a patrolman in the Air Force.

Seeking to return to the office is former Sheriff Ron McNesby. He served two terms from 2000-2008, when he lost to Morgan, and has more than 40 years total with the department. 

John Johnson has more than 30 years of experience as well; nine as an Escambia County Sheriff’s Deputy and 22 with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

And, Doug Baldwin, Sr. rose to the rank of Lieutenant during his 35 years with the Pensacola Police Department.

“My first and most priority is addressing the crime problem here,” said Baldwin, as he and the other Republican candidates took part in a candidate forum on WSRE-TV earlier this month.

Asked about their top priorities, Baldwin said he would begin with a complete realignment of the sheriff’s office, to put manpower where it’s needed most.

“Alleviating some of the positions at the top that are consuming a large amount of taxpayers’ money and we will make sure we have enough officers on the bottom end and on the street to cover some of the areas that are plagued with crime in our community.”

All of the candidates agreed that a good portion of that crime is due to drug trafficking and addiction problems in the county. Johnson, the former DEA agent, says attacking the drug problem is the place to start.

“We not only have heroine, we have cocaine, crack cocaine and meth labs at all-time highs in Escambia County right now,” Johnson said. “By reducing the availability of those illicit drugs, we would truly be able to drive down the crime rate in Escambia County.”

On drug crime, incumbent Sheriff Morgan says his team is moving in the right direction. And, he was quick to point out that the crime rate is actually down.

“Well, obviously my opponents don’t read the paper,” said Morgan, referencing the recently reported statistics for the first six months of this year. “Our index crimes are down 16% in Escambia County and violent crime for the first half of this year is down almost 16%. Since 2009, it dropped 21.5%. So you add the mid-year with that and our violence crime rate is down almost 37% in Escambia County.”

Despite those figures, Morgan’s GOP opponents continued to press, with former Sheriff McNesby expressing their joint sentiment the real measure of crime (particularly drug crime) in the county is how people feel about it. 

“We got to let people feel secure,” said McNesby. “And, the only way you’re going to feel secure is to eliminate this crime rich environment that these drug dealers are operating in. They’re way out in the open. It’s no secret anymore. That has to be fixed.”

Another issue in the sheriff’s race is how the candidates would handle the recruitment, training and retention of deputies. Baldwin, who happens to be African American, says one priority is more diversity in hiring.

“Minorities, who represent the department in such as way as it helps to attract other minorities into the field of law enforcement,” said Baldwin. “We also have to raise the salary of officers. In order for us to do the things that’ve been mentioned, we have to retain officers and retain them a decent salary.

But, McNesby says just getting them in the door is tough these days, given the recent events around the country involving law enforcement.

“Officers are in a lot of danger today, and it’s hard to find people that are willing to take the job for the money that it pays,” McNesby said. “The officer starting salary today, according to the sheriff’s website, is the same as it was 8 years ago. We’ve got to do better for pay and better for benefits. But, we definitely got to do better for training.”

Morgan’s response: the department is staffed sufficiently, despite a large number of deputies who are retiring due to DROP; a salary study is in the works; and their training made great strides on the training front.

“Again, we train to twice the state required average on the range and also in our classroom training,” said Morgan. “We’ve upgraded to computer models, which again we have officers in simulated situations, shoot-don’t shoot scenarios, which are verbally controlled. We are state of the art, when it comes to training.”

And, Morgan went on to offer a reminder that the problems being seen in other parts of the U.S. are not being experienced in Escambia County, which he says is due to the county’s leadership..

On the issue of body cameras for Escambia deputies, all the candidates are in favor of moving in that direction.

In terms of how to pay for them, Johnson and McNesby took the opportunity to criticize Morgan for spending $130,000 in Law Enforcement Trust Funds on a series of suspiciously-timed public safety awareness billboards.

“I did a little research (about two weeks ago) and found that the Law Enforcement Trust Fund could have pay for those cameras,” proclaimed Johnson. “Our Law Enforcement Trust Fund was spent on other things, so now Mr. Morgan is asking for $200,000 in budget dollars to buy them.”

McNesby chimed in, “that money could have bought body cameras. It’s not fair to the Law Enforcement Trust Fund to fund a re-election campaign for the sheriff.”

At this particular forum, Morgan didn’t directly address the billboards, instead informing his opponents that the NON-recurring nature of the trust fund means it’s not a good source for funding long-range initiatives such as the body cameras..

As the incumbent, Morgan has spent much of the campaign defending his record. But, he’s been on the attack, too, pointing out former Sheriff McNesby’s blemishes. Those include a falsified report when he was a young deputy in 1968, and a 2004 grand jury probe involving alleged misuse of his power, a case that was eventually dropped.

The winner of the Republican primary race between David Morgan, Ron McNesby, Doug Baldwin and John Johnson will face no party affiliation candidate Rex Blackburn and write in James Brooks in November.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.