Are Sampson Residents Safe?

Four deputies per shift to patrol 963 square miles


By Robert Jordan
Dunn Daily Record

SAMPSON COUNTY – Nine hundred and sixty-three square miles of homes, businesses, farm land and roadways make up Sampson County. It’s more than twice the size of Los Angeles, but unlike that city’s nearly 1,000-man police department, Sampson County only has four deputies on patrol at any given time.

Four deputies to cover 963 square miles and 63,204 people.

Mathematically, that equals one deputy for every 15,801 residents and every 241 miles. Sampson County’s head crime-fighter is pulling no punches in his bid for more officers and extra support.

“The residents of Sampson County are not safe. Due to lack of adequate funding, I am unable to protect them as I was elected and sworn to do,” said Sampson County Sheriff Jimmy Thornton.

Thornton is frustrated.

His agency is short 13 employees across the board. These positions include detention guards, deputies and patrol officers. He points out the vacancies stem from an employee exodus he is unable to contain due to a region-wide salary disparity between law enforcement agencies.

“The Sampson County Sheriff’s Office has a long-standing history of having hardworking and dedicated deputies, who take their jobs seriously and professionally for the citizens they serve,” Thornton said. “Recently, we have seen an exodus in deputies. Not because they are unhappy, but because they are underpaid and simply put, other agencies pay more. Typically, in the past, we were able to fill any brief deputy vacancy with a deputy who was assigned to work in the jail. That is no longer the case, because we face staffing issues in the jail as well.

“As for the jail, low pay has been an issue for a long time and recruitment is tough,” the sheriff points out. “Over the years, the county has given some bumps in jailers’ pay, but never enough to come close to being competitive with other counties.”

Much of Thornton’s angst stems from what he says are Sampson County’s repeated denials of increased funding requests over several years.

“In the past two years, no one has included me in any budget planning meetings. Almost two years ago, we knew we had a serious issue with staffing and pay, and instead of going to the county manager and saying ‘hey, we need more money’, we actually worked to formulate a plan that would bring in more revenue to the county to fully fund our pay proposal without having to raise taxes,” Thornton said.

“We were going to do this by housing federal inmates and charging the federal government a fee to house them. This federal program was projected to bring in around $1.8 million in revenue, which was more than enough to cover the cost of deputy and detention officer pay increases,” he said. “The county manager declined our offer.”

The county manager eventually agreed to try housing federal inmates, Thornton said.

The Daily Record contacted County Manager Ed Causey for a response to Sheriff Thornton’s concerns.

In a prepared statement, Causey said, “The commissioners and I fully support all county departments including the sheriff’s department (including detention). We all value and are appreciative of law enforcement and the sacrifices that they make to ensure the safety of the public. We recognize that law enforcement agencies throughout North Carolina and the nation at large are currently experiencing issues with staffing shortages and retention of employees.

“As a county manager, I am charged with the responsibility of reviewing all budgets. Budgetary constraints often prevent our recommending all proposed budget requests. This certainly does not mean, nor should anyone conclude that we do not value and support all departments. I will continue to welcome the opportunity to discuss budgetary concerns/challenges in a constructive manner with any department including the sheriff’s department.”

Thornton reported that the Sampson County Board of Commissioners approved obtaining a full market study to correct all salary discrepancies, then canceled the plan.

Causey admits the study was approved, then canceled.

“Unfortunately, we could not contract with anyone to begin before July 2022 due to the fact local governments across our state were (and are) facing similar issues with employee compensation and are also seeking the completion of market studies,” Causey said.

Responding to Thornton’s claims about the delay in a federal inmate housing contract, Causey replied, “We sincerely applaud the efforts of the sheriff’s department to increase revenue. Unfortunately, when the original contract was presented, the sheriff offered a specific proposal that indicated that they would not consider housing federal inmates unless their proposal was approved in its entirety. As a result, we did not recommend the contract for further consideration because of their additional requirements.”

Causey also mentioned concerns about risk management and potential safety issues for detention center employees when housing federal inmates. He offered no explanation as to why one group may be considered a higher risk than others.

In fiscal year 2021-22, the detention center was able to house federal inmates which yielded $1.3 million for the county.

Safety concern
Sheriff Thornton said he is concerned for the safety of the residents of Sampson County, as well as his law enforcement personnel.

“On the night Deputy Caitlin Emanuel was shot and severely injured, there were only four deputies on patrol in all of Sampson County. That is 50% of the required staffing pattern,” the sheriff said.

Thornton noted that, “County Commissioner Chair Sue Lee recently posted on Facebook that Sampson County’s tax rate (82.5 cents per $100 valuation) is higher than any surrounding county. In the same statement, Commissioner Lee also defended paying the Sampson County Manager more than the governor of North Carolina.

“If we tax more, why do we pay our deputies, guards and patrolmen less than surrounding counties?” Thornton asked.

Commissioner Lee responded, “We serve one of the largest counties geographically in the state. The size of our county impacts the cost of government. In addition, prior commissioners made a commitment to improve the facilities or our schools and county government offices, which included new sheriff’s office and jail.

“The required debt service created a much higher debt service than those of contiguous counties,” Lee continued.

When asked about the county manager’s salary as compared to the governor’s salary, Lee said, “It is misleading to compare his salary to the governor as his salary does not include living expenses, security, housing, multiple paid staff, and other amenities that are provided to the governor. You will find the county manager’s salary is well within or slightly below comparable positions.”

Causey’s salary is $161,868 a year. The governor is paid $158,612 a year.

“Currently we have four deputies patrolling a county the size of Rhode Island when we need eight,” Thornton said, responding to Causey and Lee. “We have 13 vacancies throughout the sheriff’s office. We need more guards, deputies and patrolmen. That puts citizens and deputies, guards and patrolmen at risk. … What are you going to do to fix these problems?”

An online petition paid for by Thornton for Sheriff began circulating last week. In less than 36 hours, it received more than 2,500 electronic signatures. The petition, titled “Tell the Commissioners: Fully Fund the Sampson Sheriff’s Office!”, explains the plight of the financial problems being experienced by the sheriff and encourages the county manager and county commissioners to make salaries competitive with surrounding agencies.

Visit to see the petition.

“Do we have the right spending priorities?” Thornton asked. “Sampson County does collect enough taxes. It doesn’t need to raise taxes. But we do need to set priorities — and spend tax money wisely.”

The sheriff took offense to Facebook statements made by Lee labeling his office “as the highest funded department in the county.”

“If you go on the county website, you can see its overall total budget is roughly $170 million,” Thornton said. “The county spends $18.4 million on schools, $16.1 million on Social Services, and $14.2 million on the Sheriff’s Office. So my office is not the highest funded department.”

Starting pay for a Samspon County deputy is $38,160.

Salaries for new deputies with no experience in surrounding counties include: $42,032 in Bladen; $44,000 in Cumberland; $38,867 in Duplin; $41,997 in Harnett; $51,695 in Johnston; $44,405 in Pender; and $41,049 in Wayne.

Starting pay for a Sampson County detention employee is $32,892.

Starting pay for detention empoloyees with no prior experience in surrounding counties include: $42,032 in Blade; $39,000 in Cumberland; $36,611 in Duplin; $35,222 in Harnett; $45,301 in Johnston; $38,449 in Pender; and $35,435 in Wayne.


  1. What everyone should realize is that enforcing the law is a primary function of any government. If you do not take care of this issue, you could begin to start looking like Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles or New York. We do not want that here in NC.

    • Just as an example — New York City has 53 police officers per 10,000 residents. To be at that same ratio Sampson County would need 334 police officers.

      • @NCGal: Stop trying to confuse people with actual facts. We all know that anything coming out of New York is bad.

  2. According to federal courts, law enforcement have no duty to protect any citizen. It’s why 2A is so important. We self-governing citizens can protect ourselves so long as the law does not infringe upon that right.

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