Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes has been sheriff for 24 years now, and he’d like to make that at least 28 years. Barnes said this week that he’s eager to serve another four years as sheriff and he’s hoping county voters want to see that happen as well.
Barnes, 67, recalled that the Rhino Times once referred to him as “Guilford County Sheriff for Life,” and he said he knows it may appear he’s trying to live up to that title given that he’s seeking yet another term. But the longtime sheriff said that every four years he gauges where he is in life and makes a decision. He said that right now he’s eager to serve the county’s citizens for another term.
“As long as I’m having fun, my health will allow and I feel like I’m accomplishing something, I’ll keep doing this,” he said, adding that the voters will ultimately make the decision.
Barnes had a health scare in 2014, the last time he ran for the office. He had to miss the kickoff fundraiser for his own campaign because of a heart issue that required a stent. Since then, however, he’s been eating better and exercising more. He’s dropped a lot of weight in recent years and he said he feels very good right now, which is one reason he’s so eager to run again.
“I will run wide open,” Barnes said of the 2018 race.
Barnes served as a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps before entering law enforcement decades ago. Early in his career, he worked in the Vice Division of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department as an undercover officer.
In 1994, the Republican Barnes beat Democrat Sheriff Walter “Sticky” Burch, who was 76 at the time. In that election, Barnes got 52 percent of the vote to Burch’s 48 percent.
Guilford County sheriffs hold one of the most powerful positions in the county. As an elected official, he or she basically answers to no one other than the voters and runs one of the largest county departments with over 650 employees. The sheriff is responsible for overseeing Guilford County’s two jails in Greensboro and High Point.
Barnes said that, under his nearly two-and-a-half-decade tenure as sheriff, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department has flourished, won awards and received honors, and he added that crime has gone down steadily. Barnes’ department has twice won the award for Best Large Office in the State. Barnes has been nominated for Sheriff of the Year – an award given out by the National Sheriffs’ Association. Barnes has also served on numerous law enforcement committees and boards at the local, state and national level. He served as a special assistant to the director of the Driver’s License Section of the NC Division of Motor Vehicles as well as liaison for the State of North Carolina on the North Carolina Drug Cabinet. In addition, Barnes wrote the Law Enforcement Section of the North Carolina Drug Plan.
In the past, Barnes has run for reelection touting the fact that no one had ever escaped from the county’s jails under his watch, but in recent years there have been a couple of escapes. In one escape that sounds like the plot of a Keystone Cops movie, two inmates in the High Point jail realized that they could pry off a window cover and escape – since, amazingly, there were no bars on the windows in the High Point jail. (There are bars now.) The two men made their way out the window and lowered themselves to the ground with bed sheets tied together. In another escape – this one from the Greensboro jail – a handcuffed inmate simply ran out the front door of the new downtown jail. He was apparently a surprisingly fast runner for a man with his hands cuffed behind his back.
So Barnes can no longer claim no one has ever escaped from the county’s jails under his watch, but he does point out that all of the escapees were apprehended soon after.
“Nobody has escaped that we haven’t caught,” Barnes said, admitting that that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “No one has ever escaped.”
There will once again be an effort by county Democrats to get someone other than Barnes into the powerful and high-profile position. Guilford County Democratic Commissioner Skip Alston, who has worked with – and at times banged heads with – Barnes since the mid ’90s, said he’s heard several Democratic contenders may file to run when candidate filing opens up next week. Alston said he gets along well with Barnes, despite often disagreeing with him politically.
“I don’t have anything negative to say about him,” Alston said of the sheriff. “The only problem with BJ is that he has an R in front of his name.”
Alston added that there were “some issues in the jail” that need to be addressed.
Over the last decade, Barnes’ critics – including former Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis – have said that his department is too slow to promote minority officers, a charge Barnes vehemently denies.
One Democratic contender who has publically stated his intention to run for sheriff in 2018 is Danny Rogers, who ran in 2014. Rogers was endorsed by the George Simkins Jr. Memorial Political Action Committee despite the fact that in his past he had a list of criminal charges filed against him including assault on a female. Rogers, who has worked as an officer in the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department and the High Point Police Department, lost to Barnes by getting 44 percent of the vote to Barnes’ 56 percent.
Barnes said he’s aware that Rogers plans to run because Rogers has already been putting up signs. Barnes added that it’s illegal to put up campaign signs this early if they are in public areas.
“If they’re in your yard there is a First Amendment argument that can be made,” the sheriff said.
While Barnes will clearly face opposition from a Democratic contender in November, it’s not known if he’ll face any opposition in the Republican primary in May. The filing period for the sheriff’s race as well as other races runs from noon, Monday, Feb. 12 to noon, Wednesday, Feb. 28.
Barnes is married to Dena Barnes, a former mayor of Summerfield who now serves on the Summerfield Town Council. He has two daughters, two granddaughters and four grandsons.
Barnes knows that even being elected sheriff doesn’t insulate one from crime in the county. In 2015, Barnes’ house was broken into and the thief or thieves made off with a good many items, some of which were later found tossed aside in the woods.