Guns, drugs, race: Here's what Vanderburgh County sheriff candidates said to voters – Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Community members attending the League of Women Voters sheriff candidate forum were interested in the high-profile topics. 
Questions about jail expansion, mental health in jails, juvenile corrections, drug use, gun permits and sheriff’s office diversity all made their way to the moderator via index cards throughout the hour on Thursday at McCollough Library.
The forum, attended by all three candidates for Vanderburgh County sheriff — Jason Ashworth (D), Noah Robinson (D) and Jeff Hales (R) — marked the first of three Q&As scheduled within the next week. 
The candidates will also appear at a forum hosted by the Indiana Democrat African American Caucus at 6 p.m. Friday at C.K. Newsome Center; and 7 p.m. April 12 at the FOP Lodge, hosted by the Fraternal Order of Police Auxiliary. 
Here are three takeaways from the session. 
More:Near the end of his tenure, Vanderburgh sheriff is still pushing for a jail expansion plan
All three candidates acknowledged the issues Vanderburgh County deals with when it comes to drug use. 
“We do have a drug problem here,” Ashworth said. “There’s no question about that.” 
Ashworth said people are dying from fentanyl, not substances like marjiuana. He later restated his position that there will be no arrests or tickets written for simple marijuana possession if he’s elected.
More:Marijuana arrests, legalization crops up as early issue in Vanderburgh County sheriff race
He pointed to the work of the Evansville-Vanderburgh County Joint Drug Task Force as a win for local law enforcement. He highlighted a recent investigation that led to the seizure of a pill press and fentanyl pills. 
“I would say I think that a lot of communities, they could learn from us,” he said. 
More:Marijuana arrests, legalization crops up as early issue in Vanderburgh County sheriff race
Robinson echoed Ashworth’s sentiments on the Joint Task Force.  
“But we’ve known since the ’80s we are losing the drug war,” he said. 
Seventy-nine percent of the people booked into the Vanderburgh County jail report having a severe substance abuse problem, Robinson said. 
He also shared his views on marijuana. While he said he believes in strict enforcement of the drug laws, Robinson does support the legalization of marijuana. 
“I don’t want to see marijuana transactions in back alleys and parking lots,” he said. 
Robinson said those situations can lead to eruptions of violence, and the solution would be to legalize marijuana and regulate it.
“I’m not thrilled about it,” he said. “But I think it’s necessary.” 
Hales said he couldn’t ask any more than what is already asked of officers working out in the community every day dealing with drugs. 
Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law in March, which will go into effect July 1, eliminating the license requirement to carry a handgun in Indiana. 
“Let me say again, I’m a conservative,” Hales said. “I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in all the amendments. I believe in the Constitution.” 
Citing “straw purchases” — the illegal purchase of a firearm by one person for another — Hales said there are already good laws in place. But those laws need to be in place for violent felons, he said. 
“Do I believe we have too many guns in the United States? Well, sure,” he said. “But are we realistically going to get rid of them? Probably not.” 
Hales said he always carries, and he believes it’s his right as a law-abiding citizen to do so. 
“I believe each one of you that are law abiding citizens should have the opportunity to carry if you choose,” he said. 
Robinson and Ashworth both took issue with the law. 
More:Here’s how the plan to expand Vanderburgh County’s jail got a step closer to reality this week
Robinson said he agreed with Hales that if a criminal wants to get a gun, they are going to. But he said “criminals don’t apply for gun permits.” 
Noting the phrase “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” Robinson said there’s now no way for law enforcement to determine who is who. He previously wrote a letter to Holcomb asking him not to sign the bill into law. 
“I’m pro-gun. Believe me I own guns. My family own guns,” he said. “But was a gun permit really that big of a burden to ask our citizens to do?” 
Ashworth said he gets asked a lot about running as a Democrat and defunding the police. 
“The very topic we’re talking about defunds the police,” he said. 
Ashworth said removing the permit takes money out of the sheriff’s office budget, which currently issues the permits for county residents. He also noted during that traffic stops there will no longer be a way for deputies to know prior to approaching the vehicle if the person has a gun. 
“It is going to get people in our community killed,” he said. “It is going to get law enforcement killed.” 
Ashworth said if elected one of the first things he will do when working in local schools is make sure a female officer and a young person of color are involved in the programming. 
“So the kid in the third grade who looks more like the deputy standing up at the front is more inclined to go up to that deputy and tell them something good or bad,” he said. 
He said the sheriff’s office has to reflect the community in which its deputies work. Ashworth promised in the next few years the community will see a “drastic change in the face of the sheriff’s office.”
Robinson said the office has to have a strong workplace culture that supports diversity and inclusion. 
This comes through things like anti-bias training and de-escalation training, he said. 
“You make it a part of the fiber of the organization,” he said. 
Robinson said he also believes in meeting people where they live. 
“Familiarity builds trust,” he said. 
Hales said he would also focus on schools in an effort to aid with the office’s relationship with minority communities. 
“The job of the sheriff is to be a part of diversity,” he said. “And the job of the sheriff is for recruitment purposes.”
Hales said the department needs to go into the community and get to know the kids at a younger age. 
“We absolutely need a diverse department” Hales said. 
Sarah Loesch can be contacted at with story ideas and questions. 


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