‘It’s about privilege’: Meck sheriff writing tickets in a wealthy area causes backlash

Sheriff McFadden addresses issues of privilege and local law

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ely Portillo//The Charlotte Observer) - Residents in Cornelius were surprised last month on a Sunday afternoon to see a dozen Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office deputies writing tickets on Jetton Road.

The speed limit on Jetton, which leads to wealthy lakeside neighborhoods like The Peninsula where homes routinely fetch more than $1 million, is 35 mph. In two hours, deputies ticketed 21 drivers going more than 10 mph over the speed limit.

Officers with radar guns are a common sight on highways and roads around Charlotte, but the Feb. 17 enforcement operation angered some drivers and led to a tense meeting Monday between Sheriff Garry McFadden and the Cornelius town commissioners.

“If we wrote tickets someplace else, I would not be standing here. Let’s be honest about it,” McFadden, who was elected last year, told the commissioners.

Questions about policing, race and class swirled at the meeting. Residents and commissioners said they wanted to know why the Sheriff’s Office hadn’t coordinated with Cornelius Police, and why the sheriff’s agency — which is best-known for running the county detention centers, protecting the courthouse, serving warrants and evictions — was doing traffic checkpoints. They also questioned why the Sheriff’s Office chose the Sunday of the NBA All-Star Game to conduct a traffic operation with 12 deputies on Jetton.

“The phones of the elected officials started ringing off the hook,” Cornelius Mayor Pro Tem Michael Miltich told the Observer, who said they didn’t know what to tell residents because the town wasn’t notified beforehand.

Miltich said inviting McFadden to the Monday night meeting wasn’t meant to be confrontational, but was intended to give them a chance to ask McFadden about the traffic operation.

“They were just surprised the amount of officers there,” he said.

McFadden, who declined an interview request from the Observer on Tuesday, told the commissioners that while people might not know the Sheriff’s Office enforces traffic laws, they’re fully empowered to do so. And he said he plans to be more aggressive than previous sheriffs.

“We are a full-service department. We can write tickets, citations and everything else,” McFadden said. “The past sheriffs may have not exercised their full rights, but I, as the 45th sheriff of Mecklenburg County, am beginning to exercise those rights. Sorry that they would offend some people.”

McFadden also said he felt the meeting was “adversarial” from the beginning.

“I thought I came to be welcomed to Cornelius, and not this,” he said. “I think this is a staged event...I wasn’t welcomed here.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Cornelius commissioner Dave Gilroy said he wanted to end on a “positive note.”

“I really don’t want you to leave here feeling like there was any disrespect,” he said.

“I think it’s too late for that,” McFadden replied.

‘IT’S ABOUT PRIVILEGE’

The census tract that includes Jetton Road and other lakefront properties is 94 percent white, according to data from the U.S. Census. Household income averages $126,818.

McFadden said he thought “privilege” played a role in the questioning of his department’s speed operation.

“We all danced around it already,” he said to the town commissioners. “It’s about privilege. It’s an African-American sheriff making differences in this city and county.”

Miltich said he was “dumbfounded” by McFadden’s remarks.

“That certainly was not in my mindset,” he said. “We just were responding to our citizens’ questions or concerns.”

McFadden said that Jetton has a problem with speeding, and pointed to past fatal wrecks on the four-lane road. In 2015, two men died when their car hit a tree and burst into flames during a police chase, while a 17- and a 12-year old driving in a speeding car were killed in a 2008 crash.

Miltich said the road’s speed limit has been a local hot-button for years, driving residents’ anger over the speed enforcement effort. The speed limit was set at 45 mph for most of the road’s length when Jetton was built, but the town lowered it to 35 mph in 2017. The goal was to protect pedestrians who cross Jetton to get to Jetton Park or the commercial areas at the road’s eastern end, near Catawba Avenue. Accidents haven’t decreased, however, and the town is considering returning the speed limit to 40 mph along parts of the road.

“The speed limit on this road is a local controversy that I’m sure the sheriff didn’t know about,” he said.

McFadden told the commissioners that he would improve communication with police departments in Mecklenburg’s towns going forward. He also said he hoped to develop a better working relationship with the Cornelius town board, and invited them to tour the jail and learn more about the Sheriff’s Office.

“Like it or not, I have to serve you for a while,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, Cornelius commissioner Kurt Naas asked McFadden how much the traffic enforcement operation cost taxpayers.

“I couldn’t tell you sir,” McFadden said. “Did we save some lives? How many lives you thought we saved that Sunday morning?”

“I couldn’t tell you, sir,” Naas replied.

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