In a rare face-to-face gathering, the candidates vying for Amherst County sheriff laid out their visions for combating drugs, protecting schools and engaging with the community during an Oct. 23 public forum.
The Amherst chapter of the NAACP hosted the event that drew about 200 people to Monelison Middle School, which included giving residents an opportunity to ask the candidates questions. Sheriff E.W. Viar, who first took office in 2016, is seeking to keep his job, while challenging him are former Amherst sheriff’s deputies Noel De Palma, Luciano Freitas and George Lee.
Viar said he is proud of his department that has fought the war on drugs in Amherst County “more than anybody ever has.” His office has worked diligently in that area, he said, and during his tenure it also has overhauled helmets, ballistic vests and weapons to include proper lighting and eyewear.
The department is seven officers short and is in the process of bringing on two more, he said during last week’s forum. “We’ve done a lot more with less and if we don’t start paying our deputies more money we’re not going to keep them. I have high standards. I’m not going to lower my standards to hire people.”
Freitas, who worked under previous sheriff Jimmy Ayers for three years before becoming an officer with the Liberty University Police Department in 2011, took aim at Viar’s success on the drug offensive and claimed he is losing that war. He referred to Madison Heights as being known to some as “Meth Heights” and said gatherers should ask themselves why three former county deputies are trying to unseat Viar.
Freitas said he would strive to have a school resource officer in each of Amherst County Public Schools’ 10 schools and would push for for a tax increase if that’s what it takes.
“If we’re providing safety for three judges in the court system, why aren’t we providing safety for our kids, for my kids?” he said. “Are we waiting on something bad to happen? Not on my leadership.”
Viar said finding money is a major challenge for getting an SRO into each school, adding the board of supervisors would “have a heart attack” if he brought a request for about a half million dollars forward. He said he doesn’t have a magic wand to make people stop using drugs but his officers are fighting drugs constantly and the county needs more revenue to retain deputies, whom he described as dedicated and highly trained.
Lee, pastor of Grace Baptist Church who also works part-time for the Lynchburg Sheriff’s Office, said he doesn’t think an SRO in each school is achievable given the current shortage of deputies. With 15 years of previously serving the Amherst department, he said he feels law enforcement needs to “pour more and more” the county’s youth and described the schools as relatively safe places.
Lee said he plans to address the critical need to retain deputies and wants to get the staff up to where it needs to be so the office can better protect and serve businesses, homes and public and private schools.
“I want to bridge the trust that’s in the community,” Lee said.
De Palma, who was dismissed by Viar in March after informing his former boss of his intent to challenge him in the Nov. 5 election, said the department needs “best practices” and spoke of his experience as an SRO and teacher with experience in a range of areas.
“Kindness doesn’t cost us anything,” De Palma said. “You have to be of the community before you can actually serve it. The community has to see you, the community has to be connecting with you ... this is about people.”
De Palma also addressed the drug epidemic, stating: “Let’s not just have a war. Let’s have prevention.”
Viar, Freitas and Lee are running as independents. De Palma is running as a Republican.
Candidates also took questions from the public and addressed their faith, support for Second Amendment gun rights, equity in interacting with the public, community policing and how they each would improve the office.
In response to a resident’s question on how the Liberty setting prepares him for the role of sheriff, Freitas said he learned how to better interact with people and he wants to bring that to the sheriff’s office.
Lee said he doesn’t think the county needs the negative tone the race has taken on and said if elected he work to make sure residents’ voices and concerns are heard.
“I know it’s a hard job,” Lee said of the role’s demands. “I don’t take it lightly, I don’t take it for granted.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.