Sheriff primary challengers highlight Mecklenburg jail troubles

The Charlotte Observer

Two Democrats running to unseat their former boss and a member of their own party in the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s race say their chief concern is the recent exodus of jail employees.

Incumbent Sheriff Garry McFadden, a former homicide detective who once had his own television show, has served as sheriff for four years, and is seeking a second term.

Challengers Aujiena (Gina) Hicks, and Marquis D. Robinson are both former sheriff’s deputies. Hicks was fired by McFadden in 2019. She says she was fired because of “at will doctrine” on McFadden’s orders in 2018 just before he was sworn in. The Charlotte Observer filed a request for Hicks and Robinson’s personnel files, but has not received them yet.

In a recent interview with the Observer, Hicks said a “good portion” of McFadden’s staff has left Mecklenburg County and taken significant pay cuts to work in Gaston and Cabarrus counties.

As the Observer has previously reported, the department is struggling to fill more than 150 vacant positions in the jail.

Robinson said if he is elected, his No. 1 priority will be to motivate and encourage staff.

“Our staff at the jail are leaving at high numbers,” Robinson said. “So we have to motivate our staff so they stop leaving.”

Hicks said her No. 1 priority is staffing and safety. She said that leadership now is unresponsive and unreceptive to the needs of staff. She plans to change this, she said.

McFadden did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but in a questionnaire the Observer sent candidates he said recruiting efforts would be among his top priorities.

Recently, the jail has come under fire, and state records assert its staffing shortage has created unsafe conditions. Over recent months, McFadden has pledged to correct issues following critical state inspection reports but has been challenged both in hiring enough staff and reducing the number of people housed in the jail. Last month, the Observer reported federal officials would be moving dozens of inmates from the Mecklenburg facility to further reduce its population.

In less than a year, five people have died in the Mecklenburg County Detention Center and in three of those cases, the state determined the jail violated safety precautions, including having adequate staff. The family of Francine Laney, a woman who was found dead in her cell in March, is suing the sheriff’s office.

In March, ahead of the deadline put forth by the state, McFadden outlined his plan to bring the jail back into compliance with safety and staffing guidelines. He said they are working on recruitment and retention efforts and in the meantime they have hired private security to help make up the difference.

Running the detention center — the largest of its kind in the state — is one of Mecklenburg’s sheriff’s main duties.

McFadden has received strong criticism from the local Fraternal Order of Police for his job performance and handling of the Mecklenburg jail. The FOP said it will be endorsing a candidate in the coming weeks, but it has not voted on who yet.

Former Sheriff Irwin Carmichael endorsed Hicks and the Black Political Caucus of Charlotte Mecklenburg endorsed McFadden.

No Republican filed to run for office, so the winner of the Democratic primary will be seated as sheriff.

Robinson and Hicks are both making their first run for elected office. Here’s more on each candidate.

Candidates for Mecklenburg Sheriff

Once staffing levels have improved, Hicks said she hopes to be more involved with schools and the elderly.

“I’d like to prevent people from coming to jail by combating some of the social issues that make them come to jail, such as substance use (and) (...) behavioral health issues,” Hicks said. “I’d like to collaborate with community resources to help me in combating those issues so that our numbers are minimal.”

Robinson said the reason he decided to run for sheriff is his concern over how the domestic violence unit of the department is operating.

He said that during his time in the sheriff’s office, domestic violence victims would frequently have problems enforcing restraining orders because the sheriff’s office failed to serve the papers to the alleged abuser. He retired from the sheriff’s office in January 2022.

He says staffing in the sheriff’s domestic violence unit has not kept up with the area’s population growth. He said this is because despite Charlotte’s growth in population, the domestic violence unit is only staffed by two deputies, like it has been since 1997. In a follow-up email to the Observer, Robinson clarified that the unit was staffed by two deputies per shift.

Robinson said he would create a Sex Trafficking Unit that will work alongside local and federal law enforcement agencies.

McFadden, in the candidate questionnaire, said the biggest challenges the department will face in the coming years are mental health for both staff and those in the jail, employee retention, and staffing.

As his proudest accomplishment, McFadden said it is “earning and maintaining the trust of the citizens who elected me as their sheriff and becoming the first African American sheriff (in Mecklenburg) who is progressive, passionate and proven.”