Jimmy Thornton reflects back 11 years when he talks about why he has decided to seek a fourth term as Sampson County’s sheriff, naming three central issues he saw then that made him want to go after the county’s highest law enforcement office the first time around.
Thornton filed for that fourth term Thursday afternoon at the Sampson County Board of Elections, his wife Betsy by his side.
In his office earlier this week, Thornton stressed where he believes the Sheriff’s Office was before he took office and where it is today, after what he called a lot of hard work — even blood, sweat and tears — on the part of all those within his department.
“This county had three black eyes as far as I was concerned back then,” Thornton recalled of his decision to first run. “We were, unfortunately, known as the drug capital of the state, known for our numerous jail escapes and known for our old, dilapidated jail. We weren’t appreciated nor respected by other law enforcement agencies locally, statewide or federally. I wanted to work to change all that.”
Today, Thornton, 62, believes his department is on an upward swing, the black eyes gone and the agency far more respected among law enforcement peers and a community, which he continues to stress, plays a vital role in the success of his officers’ crime-fighting abilities.
“Every promise I made in 2002 I’ve kept,” Thornton asserted. “We have stayed focused on dealing with those problems from the beginning, and things are a lot better. We aren’t without problems. Are we perfect? No. Are we going to be perfect? No. But we are making progress, and I want to see that progress continue, to be a part of that progress.”
Thornton emphasized his belief that the taxpayers of Sampson County deserve the very best service the Sheriff’s Department can offer, and he, for one, is intent on seeing that they get it.
Doing so hasn’t come without its criticism, particularly from those who believe the Sheriff’s Department’s $9 million budget is over the top, but Thornton stands firm on the things his department needs and is quick to point out the financial facts he said records back up, including the money he returns to the county through such things as jail revenue.
“Many people think my budget is inflated, but that’s just not the case. In truth, only 74 percent of our budget is taxpayer funded. About 26 percent of it comes from contracts we have with Roseboro, Garland and Child Support, and most of the Child Support is federal dollars.
“I think that’s key because it moves our $9 million budget to $6 million as far as what our taxpayers support,” the sheriff said.
While money is always a factor, Thornton said it has been, and remains, the central issues of safety and efficiency that drives his department, issues he said he started tackling the first day of his first term.
“When I first got in office, it didn’t take long for us to get focused on the condition of that jail. It was really putting taxpayers in a tremendous liability position. I don’t think people have a clue as to how much money could have been expended in lawsuits if we hadn’t done something about that old, dilapidated building.”
He focused on the jail, he said, knowing the seriousness of its condition for both employees and inmates for whom, he stressed, the county had an obligation and responsibility to provide a safe environment. “That obligation was no different than the one every other of the state’s 99 counties have, and we needed to do what we could to fulfill that obligation. A jail was needed, desperately needed.”
And Thornton believes it was a good investment.
“I think the revenue we bring in from housing inmates, the canteen, the phone service, is all a good return on a facility we absolutely needed. And I believe the county has benefited because we have it,” the sheriff said.
But he was also quick to give a nod to county commissioners and the community for supporting that need.
“It was a risk that the commissioners took, borrowing that money for the jail, but I believe it has been worth it.”
Then there was the drug problem, one the sheriff said, looked nearly insurmountable when he first took office.
“It’s not gone, but we keep plugging away at that problem every day. You know I never fathomed the meth problem we have, but the fact that we have had a high number of meth labs discovered is a testament to the work our drug officers are doing. It shows we are dealing with complaints, and the tips, alone, show that people have a high confidence we are going to get after this stuff. And again, I think the community has benefited.”
As he always stresses, Thornton noted his belief that the drug culture drives crime in Sampson County, and he pointed again to that fact as he talked about the need to continue being tenacious in the fight against drugs.
“We’ve got to do all the right things, send the right messages, and that really applies to every level of what we do at the Sheriff’s Office. That’s what the taxpayers deserve, the best service we can provide them. And we are going to work to give them that service every day.”
Thornton said if given a fourth term that will continue to be his mantra, doing those right things and providing the service he believes citizens deserve.
“I’ve truly been humbled to have this job, and I will always give it everything I have,” Thornton said.
Thornton, who was district manager of Probation and Parole for 28 years before becoming sheriff, is a 1969 graduate of Hobbton High School. He earned a BS degree in criminal justice and social work from East Carolina University in 1974 and a Master’s in Business Administration from N.C. State in the 1980s.
He and wife Betsy have two sons, Brian, who lives in Sampson County, and Greg who lives in Winston-Salem, and two grandchildren, ages 2 and 4.