Christopher takes over as sheriff

By DeeAnna Haney | Dec 30, 2013

When Sheriff Bobby Suttles announced his sudden retirement in the middle of his term last December, the Haywood County Democratic Party was given the task to choose his successor.

Three men initially stepped up to run, including then Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Larry Bryson; Bill Wilke, a lieutenant with the Asheville Police Department, and Haywood County resident Greg Christopher, who had recently retired from the N.C. Highway Patrol as a lieutenant.

The Democratic Party later decided they would only consider Democratic candidates, knocking Wilke out of the running.

Christopher won the nomination in February in a landslide vote, capturing 104.5 votes out of 136. 5. Since then, he has achieved many of his initial promises that he made when he sparred against Bryson at a public forum.

One of his primary goals was to form a cooperative working relationship with the other law enforcement agencies in the county to create a more comprehensive approach to battling major crime issues, specifically drugs. It was a much needed change that Christopher initiated almost immediately.

That partnership has become essential to tackling all crimes in the county said

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.

"Criminals don't know jurisdictional boundaries so it's important to have a constant line of communication. We have constant communication whether in person or over the phone daily. It makes a big difference when we are willing to work together," said Hollingsed.

Canton Police Chief Bryan Whitner agreed.

"It's a pleasure to work with Greg and the fact that he is big on partnership is a real plus for the people in Haywood County because whatever we do in Canton affects the rest of the county — it's all integral," he said.

The sheriff not only believes in efficiently getting criminals off the street, but also in rehabilitating them so they don't end up right back in jail. In an interview with The Mountaineer one month into his job, Christopher said, "When I first came in as sheriff, I was noticing that as people leave the jail from their sentence they have been serving, so many of them have nowhere to go and they end up out here on our sidewalk. I  have spoken to many of these people only to find out they are indeed homeless and helpless."

In an attempt to make a difference in the lives of inmates, the sheriff has partnered with other organizations across the county including churches and ministries. There are now daily church ministry members that visit inmates as well as church services on Sundays.

He even allowed what is believed to be the state's first jail tent revival, bringing in church leaders from across the county to preach to inmates. During the three-day event, 30 inmates were baptized. Though it may be unconventional, the sheriff, who is also a Christian, said his goal is to make a difference in whatever way he can.

"One of the things that I talk to them (inmates) about is the fact that we do not want to see them back in here. We want to see them fully recovered and transitioned from what they have been to what we fully believe that they can be. We're interested in seeing people's lives changed," Christopher said.

He's also partnered with LifeWorks, a program offered by HCC that teaches inmates life skills to help them find jobs when they leave jail.

Those efforts are affecting communities across the county for the better, said Hollingsed.

"He's implemented some programs to stop recidivism, and we think it's very important because it does affect the entire community as a whole, not just law enforcement, when they are released from jail with life skills and training," he said.

In a concerted effort to make schools safer, Christopher created a greater law enforcement presence by creating satellite sheriff's offices at Bethel and Riverbend elementary schools.

"I was sworn in on a Monday and I went to my first school board meeting Monday night, and we started working on school safety from that day forward. I've spent as much time at Dr. Garrett's office as I have anywhere," Christopher said.

He has worked with the school system to create more comprehensive bomb evacuation, critical incident and lockdown plans for each of the 16 schools as well as Haywood and Bethel Christian academies.

He also recently contracted with Haywood Community College to provide two full-time deputies on campus as well as a full-time deputy on duty at Haywood County Department of Social Services.

In June, the sheriff began working with county leaders to co-locate the sheriff's office emergency dispatchers with the dispatchers at the 9-1-1 Center, which is now located in the historic courthouse.

"This in itself is saving a lot of time when people call 9-1-1 or the Sheriff's Office because everybody is in the same room together sharing information rather than forwarding the information to the correct agency," he said.

The goal is to combine the two dispatch centers into one service that will be located in a new area at the Sheriff's Office by July. The county is seeking a grant to help pay for the costs that will be associated with remodeling the project would require.

Finally, Christopher has sought to establish a higher level of professionalism within his own department.

"Our first goal was to provide good customer service and to think about the sheriff's office providing customer service as though it were a business," he said.

He restructured staff, held two rounds of promotions for his employees and sent supervisors to training.

"We do that to provide more accountability for what we do here," he said.

In addition, he successfully made a case to the county commissioners for four new positions at the Sheriff's Office and an additional narcotics K9.

As a way to improve customer service at the office, Christopher extended the hours of operation at the front desk to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

Those extra four hours each week were added for people who need to come to the Sheriff's Office before or after work, mostly for the many who have applied for concealed carry permits which have increased drastically in the past year.

More than anything, Christopher said he wants to make sure people know that he is working to make the county a better, safer place and that he is always available to talk about any issues in the community.

"That's what I want is to be accessible to the people who need to talk to the sheriff," Christopher said.

He intends to run for sheriff again during the upcoming election in 2014.