Monroe County voters will soon decide whether to keep a law enforcement dynasty going or head in another direction.
Lawson Cary Bittick III, 30, is trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather to serve as sheriff. He is opposed by Brad Freeman, 54, a captain in the sheriff’s office. Freeman worked under Bittick’s dad for 32 years.
Although turnout is typically low in a runoff, longtime Monroe County Commissioner Larry Evans said he expects this one will be different. He said there’s a lot of interest in the race.
“I’m guessing a 40 percent turnout,” he said. “That would be extremely high.”
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The election will be held Dec. 4, and there is only one week of early voting, starting Monday. In the general election held Nov. 6, Bittick was the top vote getter in the 6-way race with 3,937 votes, or 31 percent. Freeman was second with 2,974 votes, or 24 percent.
Bittick, who became a lieutenant in March, has been a Monroe deputy for eight years. He previously was a dispatcher for the Georgia State Patrol for four years. Freeman has worked his entire career with the sheriff’s office, starting as dispatcher and jailer then becoming a patrol deputy after two years.
In interviews with the The Telegraph and at a public debate on Monday in Forsyth, the two candidates were respectful toward each other but outlined some differences in the approach they would take.
Both said they would like to improve investigations and patrol, but Bittick put more emphasis on investigation while Freeman said patrol is a bigger priority.
“We had virtually the same number of people patrolling the county in 1986 as we do today,” Freeman said. “When I started there were 15,000 people in the county and now there 27,000.”
Bittick said among improvements in investigations, he wants to add someone specifically to handle fraud and identity theft, which he said is a growing problem.
“I want a high output investigations division, people who are willing to work and hit the street,” Bittick said.
Another difference they spelled out involved deputies who serve in the schools. Bittick favored keeping that as is, but Freeman said he would like to make a change. While he expressed support for having deputies in schools, he said he is concerned that they lose their “law enforcement edge.” He said he would like to rotate deputies through that job so that deputies who work in the school would also spend time on patrol in the county.
Bittick said keeping the same deputies in the schools helps build rapport with the students and school staff.
At the debate, the first question put Bittick on the spot. With his father sitting in the audience, he was asked what he would do differently as sheriff, but he didn’t hesitate to come up with something.
“Technology,” Bittick said. “My father came from a time when Tasers and body cameras weren’t readily available , and all of those are kind of expected in law enforcement these days.”
Freeman also said technology is an area he would like to improve. He said the department is just now starting to get computers in patrol cars and he wants to continue that. He also said the department bought two drones only after he expressed support for the idea in the first sheriff’s debate prior to the general election. Freeman said the drones aren’t to spy on people but to help find fugitives and people who are lost.
The sheriff’s seat became vacant earlier this year when Bittick’s father, John Cary Bittick, was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Marshal for the Middle District of Georgia. He had been in office for 35 years. Chief Deputy Al Shackelford stepped in to serve as interim sheriff.
Lawson Bittick said if elected, Shackelford would be his chief deputy. Freeman said his chief deputy would be someone currently serving within the department, but he declined to say who that would be so as not to create any animosity within the office.
Ordinarily a new sheriff would take office in January following the election, but because this is a special election for an unexpired term, the winner will take office as soon as the election is certified and a swearing in ceremony is held. The winner would then be up for re-election in two years after the current term expires.