The four-way race for Amherst County Sheriff in the Nov. 5 election is a reunion of sorts.
All candidates, including incumbent E.W. Viar, worked together as deputies under Jimmy Ayers, the former sheriff who retired at the end of 2015. Viar succeeded Ayers and is seeking his second term while former Amherst deputies Noel De Palma, Luciano Freitas and George Lee are running as well.
The candidates weighed in on several issues in a series of questions from the Amherst New Era-Progress.
Noel De Palma
Previous experience: A former Amherst sheriff’s deputy who graduated from the Central Virginia Criminal Justice Academy in 2002, served parttime until 2014 and became full-time; served as a school resource officer and DARE officer in Amherst schools with experience in crisis intervention training and as a crime prevention specialist and negotiator.
Previous experience: Served as a deputy in the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, 2008 to 2011. Now works as a Liberty University Police Department sergeant and has been at LU since 2011.
Previous experience: Served more than a year each in the Virginia Department of Corrections and a Campbell County jail facility. Worked 15 years for the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, a year for the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and as a part-time deputy for the Lynchburg Sheriff’s Office for more than three years.
Previous experience: Started in 1984 with the Lynchburg Sheriff’s Office, served as a deputy, jailer, courthouse security officer, road deputy and investigator, founded the K-9 program and was named Deputy of the Year by the Virginia Sheriff’s Office Association in 1998. Worked in the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office since 2000 and served as deputy and investigator. Has also served on the Central Virginia Criminal Justice Academy’s board of directors.
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Q: This race has four candidates who are working or who have worked for the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office. What sets you apart?
De Palma: My wife and I have lived in Amherst since 1992 when I came here to teach in Amherst Public Schools. First, I am and have been invested in the community by serving on the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of Amherst County Habitat for Humanity for over 16 years. Secondly, all of my education, diverse work experience, and law enforcement training have prepared me to see the needs and opportunities of the community and the department. I can provide solutions that are kind, creative, effective, and fiscally responsible. Before you can think outside of the box you must first be aware there is a box. I know the “norms,” I believe we can do better. Finally, I don’t make campaign promises. Anyone who knows me knows me will affirm that I embrace the spirit of my campaign slogan “Liberty And Justice For All ... No More, Certainly No Less.” There should be no favoritism or looking the other way or taking the easy way out. Some may talk it...I live it.
Freitas: While each of the candidates do have similar backgrounds, I am the only candidate that has pledged to take a stand on certain issues and am the only one willing to do whatever it takes to make real change happen. I am the only candidate that has pledged to place an Amherst deputy in every school to protect our kids. I am the only candidate that has pledged not to enforce unconstitutional gun control laws. I am the only candidate that has pledged to work with the local board to open a drug rehab center to give addicts the help that they need, not just criminal records that send them back into relapse. No other candidate is willing to take a stand on these issues like I have. I am the only candidate that has pledge to donate a portion of my salary so that kids can have a hot meal in school.
Lee: Some of my experiences are shared with the other candidates: road deputy, School Resource Officer, and DARE Officer. There are also many experiences that I have that set me apart. In my early years, I was Department of Corrections-trained and worked in state prisons. I was a sergeant in the Army National Guard. I have been a local narcotics investigator where I did undercover work to take drug dealers in the community off the streets. I was a special federal officer with the Central Virginia Drug Task Force, where I was state and federally sworn. I was active in this field for years, from laying the foundation to acquire drug informants, collecting evidence against local and high-level drug dealers, and presenting drug cases in court leading to taking down numerous major drug dealers. I have training and experience in court room security.
I have been active in the community as a local pastor and led efforts to provide temporary housing, food, and clothing for the homeless.
Viar: I have by far the most experience of all the candidates. I am the only candidate that has served as Sheriff. The other candidates can theorize what it would be like to be Sheriff, but I know what it takes to handle a $3.9 million budget. I have served four years in the administration of a sheriff’s office. I have handled tough employment and policy decisions. I have worked with the Board of Supervisors and General Assembly to achieve additional funding for my deputies.
Our over-worked and underpaid investigators are still clearing cases at a greater percentage rate than the national average. Our drug interdiction efforts are more successful than at any point in Amherst County history. While our deputies are all better equipped and safer than they were four years ago when I took office, we need to look toward the future and continue to provide updated training and equipment. As Sheriff, I have led by example.
Q: What do you feel are the biggest challenges facing the Sheriff’s Office? How would you address those matters?
De Palma: The single greatest challenge comes down to one phrase: “best practice.” Best practice in regards to human resources, training and policy, fiscal understanding and responsibility, and 21st century law enforcement. All things come from the top. A true leader leads from the front. Education and application is the solution and the example I present.
Freitas: The biggest challenge at the current time is a lack of funding. It is the job of the Board of Supervisors to appropriate enough funding so that the sheriff can do the job the citizens have elected him to do. That said, even though the power of the purse is placed on the local board, it is the job of the sheriff to persuade and convince the Board of Supervisors to appropriate funding when needed. If the local board does not appropriate the funding necessary for the Sheriff’s Office, the blame needs to be placed where it belongs — on the Sheriff. It is my opinion that the current Sheriff has not done enough to get the funding that we truly need to secure our county.
Lee: There is a critical shortage of deputies in the county, with a significant increase of vacancies growing during the current administration. Currently, there are positions that do not have active employees. This weakens the security and service that the Sheriff’s Office is able to provide the community and increases the load on those in existing positions.
There are certainly challenges regarding pay and tensions within society that make the job more difficult. However, there is also a work environment within the Sheriff’s Office that needs to be improved. As Sheriff, I would actively recruit qualified candidates and increase the diversity of hired personnel that are reflective of the community that we serve. I would work to create a positive, stable, and supportive work environment that would help the county retain qualified and experienced deputies.
Viar: The biggest challenge is hiring and retaining qualified and dedicated people. We don’t pay enough and our deputies feel unappreciated. The state compensation board pays the bulk of the deputies’ salaries. It is incumbent on the Amherst County Board of Supervisors to provide additional funding to stay competitive with other area law enforcement agencies. Our board is aware of the issue and I will continue to address it with them until we have resolved this issue. The budget process is starting right now for the next year, so I am asking for higher salary for my personnel. I have an amazing team that I am proud of, but they can go to any surrounding law enforcement agency and make considerably more money.
I have diligently worked with the Board of Supervisors for the last four years and will continue to do so. I repeatedly requested additional funding for higher salaries. I believe it is essential to increase deputies’ salaries if we want to hire the most qualified applicants. Amherst County deserves the highest quality law enforcement we can provide. The men and women routinely risk their lives for this community. Higher compensation is only fair and just.
Q: How would you address the drug epidemic in Amherst?
De Palma: An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Others want to wage “war”... wars have casualties ... casualties are people. Let’s do two things to address the drug issue. First, prevention by providing programs like DARE that cost nothing to all levels of the school system. Support community elements to break recidivism like a drug court.Restoring the narcotics unit to previous an effective level is imperative. This means levels in manpower and funding. The office budget cannot be balanced at the expense of safety or service.
Freitas: Since 2015, meth usage in Amherst has skyrocketed, reaching levels we have never seen before. In 2015, there were five “incidents” reported involving meth. Two years later, there were a total of 96. The drug epidemic in this county is not getting better. Simply arresting drug offenders and abusers is clearly not the prime solution to the problem. While I will enforce the law as passed with regard to drug usage, I have been teaming with local colleges, universities, and medical groups to develop a plan of action and create a drug rehab center right here in Amherst County. Drug addicts need help. I am fully prepared to take that step.
Lee: I have been actively involved in fighting drugs and have extensive experience in this particular arena. I’ve spent years both educating our youth in drug awareness and in the field as an investigator and special federal officer, working cases locally and within and beyond Central Virginia. We need to get the Sheriff’s Office fully staffed. We currently have two narcotic investigators assigned to the Task Forces that work across numerous counties. We do not currently have a local narcotic investigator assigned solely to Amherst County. Without anyone on the home front, drug usage and sales are growing. This is true of meth and other illegal substances. It is imperative that we are fully staffed so that we can have men and women assigned locally and on task forces.
Viar: Drugs are destroying lives and are a driving force in crimes within our county. As Sheriff, I’ve invested tremendous resources to combat illegal drug sales and use in Amherst County. Drugs are a growing concern for our nation, but, in Amherst County, we are trying to be proactive and combat it. By volume, methamphetamine is our biggest drug problem, but opiates are a growing, deadly concern; this is where we see most overdoses. We work closely with partner agencies. We have interrupted entire networks of methamphetamine and heroin distribution in this area. We have also provided training on the use of Narcan (Naloxone) to every deputy. By administering these to overdoes victims, our deputies have saved several lives this year.
Q: What is your stance on the pay deputies receive and how would you work to address this issue?
De Palma: Amherst is now losing officers because of pay. Work environment and lack of advancement are the reasons. When I moved from teaching to law enforcement I experienced nearly a 40% reduction in pay. The problem with pay is it is not consistent. Pay may be negotiated at different levels and advanced at different rates. It should be established and advanced equitably. Years of service, service assignment, performance, and special skills and achievements all need to be considered. The more one knows, the better and longer one servers should rewarded. Pay advancement needs to be established and clearly set out for open inspection. Fiscal responsibility requires value in service provided for the community to have better pay.
Freitas: The pay of current deputies in Amherst is sad and needs to be addressed. Deputies are fleeing Amherst due to their lack of pay and benefits. In the past four years, 10 deputies have left the county for other departments. Likewise, deputies are not attracted to Amherst because local departments and offices are able to offer more competitive pay. As Sheriff I will do what it takes to get the funding necessary to give all of the Amherst County deputies a pay raise. It’s time we treated law enforcement with the honor and dignity they deserve.
Lee: As Sheriff, it will be my responsibility to oversee the budget that is received from the State Compensation Board and the County. I will advocate for competitive pay with the Board of Supervisors. I will also maximize services to the community by utilizing the funds that are presently available for the operation of the Sheriff’s Office, which pays deputy salaries. I will actively apply for grants to fund new positions to better support school safety, etc. I will also work with the Virginia Sheriff’s Association to lobby with state legislators for competitive pay for our deputies.
Viar: Deputies are underpaid and unappreciated. Recruitment and retention are extremely difficult in this current climate. I will continue to work tirelessly to increase the compensation and appreciation for our deputies. I was a founding member of the Virginia Law Enforcement Sheriff’s Association, which is lobbying heavily for more pay for our law enforcement deputies. I have spent time with our local delegates, as well as going to Richmond, to fight for fair compensation for our men and women.
Q: What is your biggest motivation in seeking this office?
De Palma: This is an election year. Go back before January 2019 and take note. I have lived in the community consistently... I have served the community when it is not part of my job ... I strive to achieve best practice to serve our 21st century community needs. I serve. Let’s make Amherst County Sheriff’s Office the constitutional office it should be “With Liberty and Justice For All ... No More, Certainly No Less.” That begins at the top and “we the people” have the power to effect the change. Allow me to continue to serve. That is all ... to serve.
Freitas: My biggest motivation is out of love for America and for Amherst County. I was born in Brazil and lived in poverty until I was brought to an amazing and magnificent place called the United States of America. In 2007, I fulfilled my dream of becoming a U.S. citizen and I couldn’t be more proud to have settled down and raised my family in Amherst County. I am proud of this county and what it stands for. I am proud that my children and my children’s children are able to grow up in a country that is truly free. But I know what lawlessness looks like. I know what happens when law and order are just a suggestion, and not a reality. I pledge to work day and night to make sure that law and order is a reality in Amherst. I pledge to treat everyone with dignity and respect, regardless of nationality, skin color, gender, or otherwise. I promise to be a sheriff for all Amherst residents, no exceptions.
Lee: I want to offer myself as a qualified candidate to the county. I feel my training and experience as described above make me the best choice for Sheriff to take us into the next decade. I have a heart to be a sheriff that is in the community and for the community. I want to see crime decreased and safety increased. I feel the community wants more input in the Sheriff’s Department. The security of the county is only as effective as the law enforcement agency that serves it. Law enforcement is everyone’s business. Bridging in trust in the community strengthens the community.
Viar: My work here isn’t done yet. While aggressively addressing community concerns the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office has also maintained excellent community relations. We are now working more closely with partner agencies and neighboring jurisdictions. This has allowed us to interrupt major drug networks and to bring drug traffickers to justice; thus, making our community much safer. Our deputies are now better equipped and more up to date. We have made great strides in the accreditation process and should be able to acquire full accreditation by mid-2020. I have requested funding for a school resource officer in every all county public schools but the Board of Supervisors has not provided sufficient funding to reach this goal. During my term, we have been able to increase our SRO positions from two officers [to five officers, including a part-timer] due to grants and other funding. The SRO program is very close to my heart and as long as I am Sheriff, I will continue to pursue additional SRO’s until we have one in each and every school in Amherst County. As Sheriff I will continue to pursue more fair compensation for those who risk their lives each day for all citizens. Keeping Amherst County safe for my family and yours has always been at the core of my service. I am the proven leader that will get this done.
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.