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Challengers criticize incumbent Sheriff at candidate forums in New Hanover County

GOP candidates for Sheriff Marc Benson and Jason Vaughn before the start of their forum at the NH County Senior Center GOP candidates for Sheriff Marc Benson and Jason Vaughn before the start of their forum at the NH County Senior Center

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) – Candidates running for sheriff in New Hanover County had differing views on the safety of citizens and schoolchildren as they discussed issues at a forum Thursday night.

Republicans Marc Benson and Jason Vaughn and Democrat Sid Causey disputed claims made by incumbent Sheriff Ed McMahon that violent crime is down since he first took office nearly five years ago. McMahon also told the audience at the Senior Resources Center that he believes the county's residents are safer now than in 2009, when McMahon took over as Sheriff after Causey's retirement.

McMahon, who won his first full term as Sheriff in 2010 after serving out the remainder of Causey's term, offered statistics to back up his statement about the crime rate.

"At the end of 2013, our ‘Part One' crimes, which are serious crimes, were 15.9 percent lower," McMahon said. "So you are safer. You are almost 16 percent safer in the county than when I took over in 2009."

Causey, who would come out of retirement to run the department if elected, leveled several accusations at McMahon during the Democrats' question and answer session on stage. When asked if he thinks the citizens of New Hanover County are safer than when he stepped down in 2009, Causey said, "no."

"I just don't understand how violent crime can be down when every single day that you see violent crime," Causey said. "Unless I'm missing something, I just don't understand that. No, we're not safer, and I don't believe the public thinks we're safer."

The two Republican candidates running for Sheriff also questioned whether residents of New Hanover County are safer now than before McMahon took office.

"Even the perception of safety is not there," said Marc Benson, a former investigator with the Sheriff's Office who is now a private investigator and radio show host.  "When people are in fear to go to the grocery store at night, or go to the mall or go to the movies at night, the perception is just as captivating as crime itself."

Benson's opponent in the GOP primary, Jason Vaughn, agreed. "It is unfortunate that we are having this increase in violent crime that we are seeing every single day," said Vaughn, who is also a former deputy with the Sheriff's office and now a practicing attorney in Wilmington. "Look at the statistics. Look at what you've been told, and look at the statistics. I think you'll find that we are not safer, and we need a strong leader in the position of sheriff."

When asked if he felt satisfied with the current level of security in New Hanover County schools, McMahon said his office has worked with the Superintendent and the School Board on the issue of school safety. "We have more school resource officers than we've ever had," McMahon said. "Sure, it would be great to have one in each school, but we have got a real strong plan. Right now I am comfortable saying we have what we need, and our children are definitely a priority."

Causey was quick to disagree, saying he is "absolutely not" satisfied with the security in county schools.  "We've had 21 full-time school resource officers when I retired in 2009, and we still have 21 full-time school resource officers," Causey said. "Until we get a trained, full-time deputy sheriff or police officer in that school, we're playing with fire and it's just a matter of time before we have a tragedy here." McMahon said later his department has 34 full-time resource officers that are fully trained and in the schools.

The winners of the two primary elections will face each other in the General Election in November.

Copyright 2014 WECT. All rights reserved.

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