The battle to ensure Rockdale County's public safety was well underway at the Rockdale County Think Tank's Sheriff Forum on May 19.
Democratic candidates Donald Ferguson and Eric Levett presented themselves as game changers in a campaign marked by experience, education and diversity. Sheriff Jeff Wigington, incumbent and Republican candidate, touted himself as the tried-and-true choice for the job of top cop in the county.
Both challengers Levett and Ferguson cited a lack of community engagement as one of the main issues that needs to be fixed in the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office. They each proposed changes to how the RCSO interacts with the community.
"You'll have a sheriff that believes in management by walking around, hands on," said Ferguson.
Ferguson, a retired Fulton County Captain-deputy and second time candidate for Rockdale sheriff, wants to increase patrols, including implementing 10 hour shifts to monitor criminal activity throughout the community. He also plans to create partnerships with home owners associations and deputies with take home vehicles to create a collective neighborhood watch program.
Levett, a current RCSO Sergeant-deputy, plans to hold town hall meetings as well as hire chief deputies to manage daily operations, as an effort to further put the responsibility of the open door policy in the Sheriff's hand and engage the citizens.
"I plan to be in uniform 90 percent of my time as sheriff and I plan to be in the community over 90 percent of my time as sheriff," said Levett.
"I think the sheriff needs to connect with the citizens of Rockdale County. I plan to bridge the gap that I believe that we are having between the Sheriff's department and the government offices."
Wigington laid out a list of achievements the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office has had in the last 16 years during his tenure.
Under his leadership, Wigington said that the sheriff's office maintained an excellent relationship with the school system through the community oriented policing unit, as well as CHAMPS and Gang Resistance Education and Training program.
The office continues to conduct neighborhood and business watches, as well as utilize the latest in digital in-car camera, GPS and license tag reader equipment for its vehicles.
He also reminded audiences that despite increases in thefts and burglaries, the county experienced zero homicides last year.
Both Levett and Ferguson said that pay raises were a main priority, with Ferguson adding that having written budgets while working for Fulton County, he would invite the community to give input on the budget.
Wigington was quick to point out that he had been asking the county for raises for the last four years, and that the reason for differences in pay between deputy sheriffs and police officers was due to the 5 percent annual raise Conyers city employees had been receiving for the last four years.
He stated that Rockdale County employees hadn't received a raise in that time, and the recent $1,000 bonus was taxable, thereby discrediting the purpose of the bonus.
Wigington countered that the Board of Commissioners ultimately decides the budget.
"One thing that is very easy to do is to stand up and promise you're going to do something," he said. "But once you actually get there...you realize you really don't control the budget."