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Race for Richmond Sheriff highlights struggles facing the force

Richmond Jail Justice Center Sheriff 04.png
Posted at 4:52 PM, Jun 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 17:44:59-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- When Richmond voters go to the polls for the Democratic primary on Tuesday, among the choices they face is for the city's sheriff. Among what the sheriff will oversee, security at the courts, serving papers and running the jail, known as the Richmond City Justice Center.

Incumbent Sheriff Antionette Irving is asking voters for a second term.

"I feel that we've done a good job, we as a group, and that I deserve another term," Irving said.

But challenging her is William Burnett, who served as Lieutenant Colonel under Sheriff C.T. Woody, the man Irving defeated in 2017.

"I think Richmond needs to change. I think it's been proven that it needs to change," Burnett said.

Among the reasons she feels she deserves a second term, Irving points to efforts to bring in programs to help prepare inmates for when they're released.

"We want to make sure they're career-ready, work-ready, home-ready, and community-ready," Irving said.

Burnett says if elected, he'll also bring in programs for "building better people" but adds he'll push for reforms including body cameras, hiring an attorney to advocate for inmates and a Civilian Review Board.

"When you keep that kind of openness and transparency, you keep the place honest," Burnett said.

Burnett said that a big motivator to run was hearing from current and former deputies complain about safety issues in the jail, driven in part by a staffing shortage.

"And I understand the suffering they're going through right now," Burnett said.

The sheriff's office reports 110 vacancies and a turnover rate between 11% to 12% which Irving says is a problem that other departments are facing.

"We're under the average of the state right now and we are working hard to get more staff," Irving said.

Irving cites retirement, COVID-19, unrest and poor pay compared to other jurisdictions among the reasons for the shortage. She says she's using incentives and good training to attract new recruits. She disputes Burnett's claim that the problems are not about the pay but about poor morale.

"This is all poor management. This is all poor leadership and the sheriff is just doing a bad job," Burnett said,

"Clearly, it has become a very contentious, pointed race," CBS 6 Political Analyst Dr. Bob Holsworth said.

Holsworth said that the match-up for sheriff between an incumbent and a former employee is common.

He said that Burnett faces an uphill climb as the race has likely been overshadowed by the bigger name races such as the one for governor.

"And so these voters may be looking in terms of who's endorsed who, you know, who's on, you know, who's basically, in some ways, certifying that the sheriff has done a great job or not a great job," Holsworth said.

For this race and all others in this primary, the last day for early voting is Saturday. After then, voters will have to wait until election day itself on Tuesday, June 8.