When it comes to Robeson County politics, nothing stirs the electorate as much as a sheriff’s race, and the reason is plain: The county’s top law enforcement officer controls hundreds of jobs, and the employees serve at his pleasure, so that affects thousands of people — and explains why emotions often run amok during a sheriff’s campaign.
We have more than once been accused of favoring a candidate based on little more than a size of a photograph, the length of a quotation in a news story, or the placement of an advertisement. And we are always accused of secretly supporting the same candidate or candidates — the one the person pointing the finger doesn’t support.
This newspaper has a long-standing policy of not endorsing candidates for any office, with the lone exception at least since 1996 coming when we did throw our support behind former U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre during one of his bids for re-election. If we preferred one sheriff’s candidate over another, we would simply say so, and endorse that person — but the absence of that happening won’t prevent the accusations when the time comes.
So that is a 189-word preamble before we unveil the purpose of today’s Our View, which is to provide a public pat on the back for Burnis Wilkins, the Lumberton city councilman and a veteran of more than 30 years in law enforcement. Although Wilkins has not announced his intention to run for sheriff, we expect that to happen any day. When it does, Wilkins will join Randy Graham, who recently retired as an investigator in Internal Affairs at the Sheriff’s Office, as announced candidates.
We expect others to follow, including Red Springs Police Chief Ronnie Patterson, and Lennis Watts, a former highway patrolman who has twice run before. We know there will be others. So it will be a field deep with qualified candidates with decades of law enforcement experience.
Now, back to Wilkins.
Last week Wilkins was at his home in Precinct 3 when he heard a hail of gunshots, and seconds later saw a young person running nearby. Wilkins gave chase and confronted the young person, who was armed. Wilkins was armed as well, but no one died or was injured on this day because Wilkins noticed — he credits his continuing training as a police officer — that the young person’s weapon was either unloaded or jammed.
Wilkins detained the youth, whose name has not been released publicly and has not been charged with any crime. Lumberton police say the investigation is continuing, so perhaps that will happen; perhaps not. So far two people have been charged with shooting and injuring three people, all of whom are recovering.
We don’t need to recall the number of deadly confrontations between police officers and young males — many of color — in recent years that have caused outrage across the country, sometimes deserved, sometimes contrived, and even violence and looting, which are never appropriate responses. Thinking Americans realize that most police officers do their jobs well, and these deadly encounters mostly aberrations, the result of officers who are in high-stress situations and fear for their lives.
Wilkins wasn’t trigger-happy that day, through we suspect he stood ready to use whatever force was required, and a young person didn’t pay a heavy price for thinking a gun is a toy.
His training spared a shootout — and Lumberton and Robeson County national scrutiny and potential chaos that we don’t need ever, and certainly don’t as we slowly get to our feet following Hurricane Matthew.
All this doesn’t mean Wilkins deserves your support for sheriff. But we do believe he deserves thanks from all of us for diffusing a situation to everyone’s benefit.