LUMBERTON — There’s a new sheriff-elect in Robeson County and he’s planning changes that he is confident will improve the Sheriff’s Office and the quality of life in the county.
“There’s definitely going to be some changes at the Sheriff’s Office,” said Burnis Wilkins on Thursday, two days after he won a five-person and often contentious race for sheriff. He will be sworn in in December to replace Ken Sealey, who is retiring after serving since 2005.
Wilkins, sitting Precinct 3 City Council member and veteran in law enforcement dating back to the mid-1970s, wouldn’t share specifics, but hinted at personnel changes and changing the culture at the Sheriff’s Office.
He will be interviewing every member of the Sheriff’s Office, Wilkins said. State statute says Sheriff’s Office employees serve at the pleasure of the sheriff.
He said organizational changes will be designed to rebuild the good working relationship the Sheriff’s Office once had with state and federal law enforcement agencies. He plans to talk to other sheriffs in the region in a bid to do the same thing with them.
“I know them. I trained some of them,” said Wilkins, who has for years been a part-time instructor in Robeson Community College’s law enforcement training program.
Among his plans as sheriff is launching an aggressive campaign against the illegal drugs trade in Robeson County. He spoke often during his campaign of his belief that drugs are the chief reason Robeson County tops the state in violent and property crime.
“I was a boots-on-the-ground candidate,” said Wilkins, who launched his campaign 17 months ago and used social media, especially Facebook, to garner support. As part of the campaign Wilkins often went to sites across the county that he said were known as drug havens, and promised to “clean up the crime and grime.”
He went door-to-door in communities to ask people about their concerns. Wilkins said “99 percent” of them told him drugs was No. 1.
He said drugs lead to robberies and prostitution because addicts will commit these crimes to get the money to buy a fix.
“It just all reverts back to the drug dealing,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said he will work to implement a multi-county task force to take on the drug problem. He also said that his work on the city, county, state and federal levels in law enforcement have gained him the credibility and contacts to get the Sheriff’s Office back participating in the federal drug forfeiture assets program, which allows counties to share assets seized in drug busts. The county has not been a part of the program since Operation Tarnished Badge.
Wilkins also wants to help ease racial tension in the county. During the campaign, some of those who opposed Wilkins tried to attach him to Sheriff Hubert Stone, who held the office from 1978 to 1994, saying he was part of an administration that treated minorities more harshly.
Wilkins rejects that label and said he will do outreach to allay concerns.
“As the elected sheriff, I will be reaching out to all communities just as I did while I was campaigning,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins believe the sheriff’s race in the primary election may have heightened the problem.
“I do feel there was an effort to cause racial tension to sway voters away from me,” Wilkins said. Wilkins was even accused of using racial epithets while before a crowd in Parkton, but was able to produce a video of the event to demonstrate the didn’t happen.
Red Springs Police Chief Ronnie Patterson, who finished second, often campaigned on the idea he would be the first African American sheriff in the county. Wilkins receive 41.9 percent of the vote to Patterson’s 35.4 in what was essentially a two-person race at the end.
Wilkins noted he won more votes than did Patterson in 26 of the 39 precincts, and one he lost by a single vote. He said Patterson’s only large margin of victory was in Red Springs.
“When it came down to it the races came together and voted based on qualifications,” Wilkins said.
Hauling was an issue during early voting and on Election Day, he said. Wilkins said he saw felons, drug dealers and validated gang members getting out of vehicles being used to haul voters to the polls. He recognized many of them.
“I called some of them by name,” Wilkins said with a smile.
Wilkins said he doesn’t have a problem with felons voting as long at the felon has served his time, successfully paid his dues to society and earned the right to vote again.
“If we had allowed the criminal element to outvote the law-abiding citizens of Robeson County this county would have gone in the wrong direction,” Wilkins said.
There was a moment on Tuesday when Wilkins wasn’t sure he would win. He knew Patterson had a lead through early voting, and was depending on a high turnout on Tuesday for him to catch up.
“When I heard the early voting estimates I knew it was going to be close,” he said.
As Election Day crept into its evening hours, Wilkins’ doubt and worries began to subside. Campaign workers fed him polling information. He watched as voting results were displayed on the map at his campaign headquarters.
“When 20 precincts had reported I started feeling comfortable,” Wilkins said. “Not comfortable enough to say I had it.”
Through the campaign, Wilkins had someone with him to lend support and from whom he could draw comfort: his wife, Jamie.
On Election Day she rode with him and two of his campaign staff from polling site to polling site, Wilkins said. Together they delivered water and snacks to his poll workers and tried to keep them motivated.
“It was a long day, 6:30 to 7:30,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins has already met with Sealey, who is working on the Sheriff’s Office budget for 2018-19, half of which will cover Wilkins’ first months in office. Wilkins intends to be involved as the budget is crafted.
But first, Wilkins plans a two-week break to rest up from the rigors of the primary campaign.
City leaders are taking steps to fill the City Council seat Wilkins will be vacating, City Manager Wayne Horne said. City Attorney Holt Moore is conducting research to determine the details on how and when that will happen.
“It will be a special election,” Horne said.
Despite his long law enforcement career, the 57-year-old wasn’t thinking about running for sheriff as recently as 2012, when he retired as a U.S. marshal. He had thought about running for mayor once Mayor Bruce Davis left the office.
“My intention was to run for mayor after he finished his term,” Wilkins said.
When it became known Sheriff Sealey wasn’t going to seek re-election, people from all across Robeson County began urging him to run for sheriff, Wilkins said. The idea meshed with his desire to make the county a better place in which to live and to protect all its residents.
In the meantime, Wilkins said he will work on his transition to the role of sheriff, bringing with him 11 years of experience in the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. And he will continue serving the people of Lumberton as a member of the City Council until he steps down in early fall.
“I grew up in Lumberton,” Wilkins said. “I love Lumberton.”
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]