Forsyth Co. Sheriff defends proposed Tommy gun trade

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Lauren Carroll/Journal

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Forsyth County Sheriff Bill Schatzman defended his department’s request to trade two vintage Thompson submachine guns for 88 new Bushmaster rifles as county commissioners reignited their debate on Thursday.

The sheriff’s office requested the trade earlier this month, but on Jan. 13 the commissioners postponed voting on it for a month. Questions had arisen about the ownership of the Tommy guns and whether Will Reynolds paid the sheriff’s office to keep them on display in the 1970s. The county did not have any paperwork to that effect.

The item popped up again at a county briefing Thursday afternoon as the commissioners reviewed items that will be up for a vote on Feb. 10.

Staff members quickly informed the board that no new ownership documents had surfaced, but the update morphed into a 30-minute discussion after Commissioner Walter Marshall asked the sheriff to address questions raised in the community about the county’s need for 88 more rifles.

“I don’t think I’d be standing here before you and asking for these weapons if we didn’t need them,” Schatzman said during the ensuing discussion.

The sheriff’s office has about 66 of the rifles and would like to arm each of its 180 first responders with one. Schatzman said it was fairly standard practice in urban and large law enforcement agencies to have rifles in officers’ cars, because the “bad guys” on the street have them.

He also saw the proposal as an opportunity to save the taxpayers $60,000 – the estimated value of the trade.

“We would be buying these guns anyway as a normal part of our business. … The need for the equipment is not in question. It is just how do we get to acquiring it,” Schatzman said.

Commissioner Bill Whiteheart said it was not the county’s job to micromanage the sheriff’s office, but since the commissioners are tasked with declaring items as surplus property they have a responsibility to include needs assessment in the process.

Whiteheart said he did not want people taking that to mean that he did not want the county to be well equipped.

With a SWAT team that has expertise, Whiteheart asked Schatzman to help him understand the need for 180 armed officers with similar high-powered rifles. Schatzman said it can take one to two hours to assemble a SWAT team.

Whiteheart also said the county has more than enough rifles to equip the eight to 10 people on patrol at a time and questioned when 180 guns would be needed at once.

Commissioner Everette Witherspoon, who is in favor of the trade, said, “Following Commissioner Whiteheart’s logic … we should have eight to 10 uniforms, eight to 10 handcuffs, eight to 10 bulletproof vests, eight to 10 patrol cars, eight to 10 badges.”

“That’s ridiculous. … Every urban county has enough for first responders. That’s part of the practice of being the sheriff, and I don’t even know how this debate has gone this far,” Witherspoon continued.

Speaking of the small number of people on patrol, Schatzman said, “That’s mighty lonely out there in the middle of the night when something bad’s going on, so we try to provide each officer, for his or her protection, with the best equipment available.”

Commissioner Mark Baker asked if the board decided to keep one gun for historical purposes and trade the other, could the county get 44 rifles. Schatzman didn’t know.

Baker also asked how much it would cost to put one of the guns on display. County Manager Dudley Watts wasn’t sure, saying it would require some planning and cost evaluation because of security issues.

“What would you do with a diamond ring if it was worth $30 to $50,000? How would you display it? Would you put armed guards around it or just put it in an alarmed case?” Schatzman asked.

He was confused by the Tommy gun concerns.

“They’ve been in a dark room collecting dust and rust for the last 50 years,” Schatzman said. “Why are they so important today? I ask that question in all honesty. I don’t know the answer.”

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