The Republican candidates for Mobile County Sheriff discussed jail overcrowding, office morale, concealed weapons in vehicles and drones with less than a week left before GOP voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

Howard Waters, a former sheriff’s deputy and military veteran looks to unseat the two-term Sheriff Sam Cochran.

Both candidates acknowledged overcrowding to be an issue at Mobile County Metro Jail. The jail is built to house 1,100 inmates, but routinely holds between 1,300 and 1,800.

Waters believes if deputies began writing citations for non-violent offenders that would ease some of the burden on the jail.

“I don’t want non-violent misdemeanors in jail,” he said. “I definitely positively don’t want veterans in jail, and I don’t want alleged mental cases in jail.
“I want the jails for the felons, for the violent felons,” he added.

He said non-violent drug offenders could also be written citations, instead of arrested and booked into the jail.

Cochran said his office has worked to combat the overcrowding issue. He blamed several factors for overcrowding including the courts and the state. He added that not locking up non-violent offenders isn’t the answer because the practice could lead to recidivism.

“We have a lot people who say ‘we shouldn’t lock up non-violent offenders’ well, that may sound good, but if you’ve got somebody who’s a chronic shoplifter, or a chronic thief and he’s been arrested time and time again, what’s the judge supposed to do?” Cochran asked. “I mean, the citizens are upset, the citizens are victimized time and time again. At some point that person has to be sentenced to a custody sentence.”

Cochran said he opposed a bill introduced by state Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, which would allow residents to carry a loaded gun in their vehicles without a concealed carry permit.

“I was happy that the portion of the law that would allow the carrying of loaded weapons in vehicles without permits was defeated,” he said. “I strongly support the right to carry concealed weapons that are permitted because for them to be permitted means we’ve been able to do a criminal background check on (the person carrying the weapon.)”

The incumbent said he’s issued over 42,000 permits in Mobile County and he turns down very few applicants.

“We rarely have a problem with any of those 42,000 people, which tells me we’ve got a good system in place that affords our citizens the opportunity, if they want to carry a concealed weapon they’re able to do it to protect themselves,” Cochran said.

Referencing a video that Cochran’s office made in conjunction with the Mobile Police Department, which shows a carload of teenagers with guns, the challenger said he didn’t like the scare tactics used by the sheriff on this issue.

“It’s not about officer safety and it’s not about the public, it’s about the pistol permit fee,” Waters said. “If I don’t have people coming down and buying a concealed weapon permit then I’m losing $20. I care more about the people and that deputy that walks up to that car than I do about $20.”

Waters said he had no problem with the bill itself.

The candidates also disagreed about office morale. Waters believes Cochran has a morale problem due to high insurance premiums and the fact that employees have gone “six or seven years without a raise.”

“If I’m elected, what I want to do is look at everything,” Waters said. “If I can find money within the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, maybe money could be found in the other agencies, in the other departments. The money has got to be there.”

Cochran acknowledged the employees haven’t gotten a raise in six years, but he referenced a video made for the annual awards banquet, which was entitled “Happy.”

“They certainly are wanting a raise and feel like they deserve it and I do too, so if you asked them about that they’d be unhappy about it,” Cochran said of MCSO employees. “Working conditions I think are good. I think morale is good, and I hear from the public all the time and they think the men and women do a jam up job.”

Speculation concerning the department’s use of a drone a few years ago surfaced during this race. When asked Cochran admitted the office had a drone at one time about six years ago, but it crashed and they don’t currently have one.

“We, at one time, had a drone,” he said. It was probably not what they call a drone today. We go back several years ago and we experimented with a drone and it did not work out.”

He said he doesn’t remember exactly how it crashed.

“It took off and never came back,” he said. “Quite honestly, I don’t know if it was pilot error or a drone problem.”

Cochran said he couldn’t remember how much his office spent on the drone. An email request for the cost of the drone wasn’t returned as of press time.

The sheriff said a drone could be used in several different aspects of law enforcement including helping to find missing persons and surveillance of a suspect who has taken shelter in a building.

Waters said he believes there were two drones at one time and both crashed. He said one crashed into Big Creek Lake and the other one crashed into a pine tree. Waters admitted though he wasn’t with the sheriff’s office at the time of the drone experiment.

There is no Democrat in the race for sheriff, so Tuesday’s winner will take the office.