Republican BJ Barnes, who has served six terms as Guilford County Sheriff, faces fellow Republican Steve Parr in the May 8 primary. Three Democrats — Danny Rogers, Therron (TJ) Phipps and James Zimmerman — are vying for their party’s nomination.
A 6-foot-8 giant who enjoys reeling off folksy anecdotes about national figures he’s rubbed elbows with, from Oliver North and Bill Clinton to Donald Trump, Sheriff BJ Barnes is fending off challengers from left and right this year.
“I’m not finished yet,” Barnes said. “I’m very pleased with what we’ve accomplished. To be frank with you I could probably get as much money retiring. I love this job.”
The six-term Republican incumbent has recently taken up writing. He’s raising money for his campaign by selling copies of his memoir, The Making of a Sheriff: The Journey Taken by the Longest Serving Sheriff in Guilford County, for $100 a pop. And he said he’s recently taken up fiction writing. The protagonist is familiar: a 6-foot-8 lawman with two initials for a first name.
A popular Republican politician, Barnes has managed a rare feat in a Democrat-leaning county: getting elected sheriff six times, beginning with the 1994 Republican wave election. He doesn’t shy away from politics, having leant his office to former Gov. Pat McCrory in 2015 to sign legislation restricting a community ID used to give undocumented immigrants a sense of stability, and campaigning for Donald Trump the following year. In an election predicted to be a blue wave in reaction to Trump, Barnes’ immigration track record might spell trouble. But his politics are hard to pin down. When Trump took office and signed an executive order to seek out partnerships with local sheriffs to assist with immigration enforcement through the 287(g) program, Barnes passed. Not only is he not interested in a partnership with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but he’s defied the federal agency.
“I’m in a battle with the ICE folks,” Barnes said. “They’re asking me to do something illegal. They want me to hold these folks in jail on a detainer beyond the adjudication of their charges. That’s unconstitutional and it’s a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.”
Last year, Barnes wrote an open letter to Congress advocating an immigration-reform policy that mixes conservative and progressive policies. “I would deploy our military to secure the border,” he said, noting with satisfaction that Trump announced on Tuesday that he wants to do exactly that. “For folks here illegally, my plan and what I would do is give them a path to citizenship by asking them to self-report. If they don’t self-report, then they can be deported.”
The four men who want Barnes’ job, including three candidates in the Democratic primary and a fellow Republican challenger, are all focusing to one degree or another on standards, staffing, employee morale and fairness. Promoting 287(g) in a political climate in which the Democratic Party is practically aligned with the anti-Trump Resistance would be political suicide for the three candidates seeking their party’s nomination. But even Barnes’ Republican challenger, a former deputy named Steve Parr, indicated he has no appetite for cracking down on immigration. Parr indicated that he doesn’t necessarily align with the Republican Party on an ideological basis, but felt pressured to switch his registration when he joined the State Highway Patrol in 1985.
“If we’re involved with someone committing a felony we need to get ICE involved,” he said. “If it’s a traffic offense, then no. Pulling someone over who doesn’t have a license and it going downhill and it evolving into someone getting deported, I don’t agree with that.”
The three Democratic candidates — former deputy Danny Rogers, retired Greensboro police Capt. Therron (TJ) Phipps and retired deputy James Zimmerman — all cite reinstating accreditation through the Virginia-based Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA, as a top priority.
“It goes towards all aspects, including crime prevention and implementing non-discrimination practices,” said Phipps, a former commander of Watch Operations in the Greensboro Police Department who also served as an assessor for CALEA. “It enhances professionalism.”
The three Democratic candidates said accreditation would require the department to regularly revisit policies as opposed to only after a crisis takes place, citing the department’s revision of the chase policy after a collision last September resulted in five deaths.
Barnes said he doesn’t need an outside agency to set standards for excellence in the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office.
“I dropped accreditation because the accreditation required two people to monitor it,” he said. “That’s two officers I could put in the field. I decided I didn’t need someone in Virginia telling me how to run the sheriff’s office.”
“The only thing CALEA does is it gives you a scapegoat when things go wrong,” Barnes added. “People say, ‘We did it like CALEA said we should.’ It does not hold people accountable.”
Phipps, Rogers and Zimmerman all emphasize building trust between the community and law enforcement, and projecting a friendlier image.
“Every call to the jail, every visit to the jail, every interaction with a bailiff in the courthouse, every stop by a deputy — that’s an opportunity to build trust,” Phipps said. “I like the saying, ‘Doing the right things the right way for the right reasons.’”
Rogers said he wants to emphasize community policing.
“You have to be educated on the different communities you serve,” he said. “You have to spend time with them. I’m learning about the Latino community. I know what it’s like to be profiled. I know what it’s like to be told to sit down on the grass. To be asked, ‘What are you doing on this side of the county?’”
Zimmerman, who retired from the department 15 years ago after more than 31 years of service, recalled that he often walked into people’s yards to talk to them while on patrol.
“I want to make the deputies more friendly — what they should be,” he said. “The sheriff works for the people in the county. You’ve got to get out in the community and find out what the people’s needs are.”
Rogers said, if elected, he would reinstate the DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.
“The DARE program hasn’t been proven to be effective,” Barnes countered. “You tell fifth and sixth graders not to use drugs, and they go into high school where they’re subject to peer pressure and it doesn’t stick. There’s no empirical evidence that the DARE program worked.”
Rogers said he simply disagrees with the studies.
“I believe that putting the DARE program back in the schools with quality men and women who can influence our youth, it will work,” he said.
Steve Parr, Barnes’ Republican challenger, pledges to add 24 deputies to patrol and improve staffing at the jail, the latter by creating a talent pipeline from area colleges.
Barnes scoffs at the idea of his opponent either persuading the Guilford County Commission to fund new positions or finding personnel to reassign from other divisions.
“Neither he nor anyone else is going to get 24 more officers,” Barnes said. “I asked for two, and the county commissioners refused to fund them. I can’t pull them from anywhere else. I’ve got an increase in civil papers and an increase in pistol permits for my people to process.”
Parr said he believes he could beef up patrols by reprioritizing resources.
“I think we have enough manpower; it’s where it’s allocated,” he said. “We have a gun unit doing electronic monitoring. There’s a DWI task force that we’ve got several people assigned to. They’re working in Greensboro and High Point. We’ve got a lot of people assigned to specialized units. We need to get drunk drivers off the road, but we don’t need to have our deputies patrolling downtown Greensboro and High Point.”
Parr has also questioned whether the sheriff’s office’s use of drug forfeiture funds under Barnes is fiscally responsible. Barnes said the agency has used drug forfeiture funds to buy land to build the new jail in downtown Greensboro, computers, an armored vehicle and a small plane that’s shared by with neighboring sheriff’s office through a regional compact.
“I know we have that airplane,” Parr said. “I don’t know of one lost child that’s been found, one dementia patient that’s been found, or field of marijuana that’s been discovered. I’d love to hear how they’re justifying the expense.”
Barnes said that, in fact, the plane has been useful.
“The plane has been involved in multiple large seizures of drugs and money,” he said. “It’s been used to assist in manhunts for criminals and to assist in located lost individuals such as Alzheimer’s patients.”
Since Barnes’ third election, Barnes’ Democratic challengers have gradually whittled down his margin of victory, from 30 points in 2002 to 12.2 points when Rogers won the Democratic nomination four years ago. Despite advantages in name recognition and fundraising, Barnes holds a reputation for taking his opponents seriously and hitting hard when he sees an opening. In an interview, Barnes noted that two of his opponents have blemishes on their criminal records, and one has a lawsuit against the Greensboro Police Department.
Parr told Triad City Beat that as a state trooper he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault after the Wake County District Attorney’s office threatened him with increasing the charge to a felony. The charge stemmed from a traffic stop.
“I hope the plus that comes out of this is I realize how serious it can be when you get put in the system,” Parr said. “Here I felt like I hadn’t done anything wrong. I want to make sure before anyone gets charged that we’re sure of the facts.”
Reflecting on the incident, Parr said, “At the time I thought I was using just about the right amount of force necessary to affect the arrest. Looking back, I’m sure I could have done things differently.”
Barnes said Rogers has been the subject of 50B orders, which are issued by the courts to restrain a defendant from domestic violence. Triad City Beat reported in 2014 that Rogers has 16 different criminal charges on his record, although most were dismissed.
Rogers declined in a recent interview to discuss his record in detail. “Yes, I’ve dealt with life challenges,” he said, “but those are behind me.”
Phipps has an ongoing discrimination suit filed against the Greensboro Police Department, the city of Greensboro and former police Chief Ken Miller, dating back to 2013.
Phipps, who obtained the rank of captain in 2007, alleges in the suit that he was passed over for assistant chief and deputy chief for three colleagues, including current Chief Wayne Scott. “I would say I have zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind,” Phipps said. “I will bring that perspective to the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office. If you’re qualified for a job you’re going to compete on a level playing field.”