CORNELIUS – Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden didn’t mince words about his invitation to speak at the March 18 town board meeting.
Commissioners and staff members asked the newly elected sheriff to attend the meeting to welcome him – and to discuss a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) operation Feb. 17 on Jetton Road.
“Is it really about this? Is it really about this?” he asked commissioners in reference to their questions about the deputies issuing citations in Cornelius. “Or is it about privilege? Let’s think about it. We all danced around it already. It’s an African-American sheriff making a difference in this city and county. I wasn’t welcomed here. I was brought here. … If it were another road, would it get that many questions?”
On that Sunday at least a dozen deputies spent two hours issuing speeding citations on the road leading to the Peninsula area. According to McFadden, 21 tickets were written, and all of them were for speeds of at least 10 mph over the 35-mph speed limit.
Residents and commissioners have expressed concerns about how they believe the situation was handled. Among them is why the Cornelius Police Department didn’t have anything to do with the operation and why the chief or other town leaders weren’t notified. It reportedly caused people to worry that something serious had happened in the area.
Cornelius Police Chief Kevin Black said at a previous meeting that his department wasn’t told that the stops would be taking place that day, though someone did call the town’s communications center two hours before the operation started. Black told the board he’d been in touch with the sheriff, who said there would be better communication in the future.
But there are other overarching questions that kept coming back up.
“Why did the sheriff decide to come to Cornelius?” asked resident Ronald Kelly, who was one of three to speak on the topic during the public comment period March 18. “If the sheriff has a concern, why not just pick up the phone and call the mayor or the town manager, or call the police chief?”
Earlier this month Mecklenburg County Deputy Chief Rodney Collins attended a board meeting to discuss the event and said the sheriff’s office has full law enforcement jurisdiction throughout the county and that traffic operations take place in areas that may have high rates of speed and fatalities.
That message was reiterated Monday night.
“We are a law enforcement agency no matter what you read or thought you read,” McFadden said. “We can write tickets and everything else. I, as the 45th sheriff of this county, am beginning to exercise those rights. I’m sorry if I offended some people. Jetton Road has a speed of 35 miles per hour, and every citation we wrote was well over 35 (mph).”
After a number of questions about why the sheriff’s office picked Jetton, McFadden said that the deputies who work that shift noted that there was a problem in that area. Speeding is against the law, he said, and the number of tickets written that day proves there is a speeding issue on the road, which could potentially cause a fatality.
The matter comes just a few months after commissioners considered raising the speed limit on the road to 45 mph, but in a split vote decided to leave it unchanged. While Mecklenburg County deputies and Cornelius police have jurisdiction over enforcing speeds, the board can decide the speed limit on the town-owned road.
Commissioner Kurt Naas noted that the speed on Jetton is particularly controversial, especially since the road was designed for speeds of 45 mph. But officers have to enforce what’s currently posted.
McFadden invited the board and staff to talk in a less “adversarial” circumstance to discuss other problems in the county, including violent crime, domestic violence and the opioid crisis.
Both commissioners and McFadden said they wanted to better the partnership between the two entities and to work together.
“I’m not here to fight against Cornelius,” McFadden said. “The young men and women came out to do their job. What is the safe speed? Tell us what we can do. … We still have jurisdiction.”