Benson in sheriff's race

In the race for Chester County sheriff, we endorse incumbent Robby Benson.

Benson, 48, is opposed by Richard Smith, 40, police chief of Fort Lawn, and Paul Martin, 69, a retired state trooper who raises miniature horses on his farm in Richburg.

This was not an easy race to call. Both Benson and Smith appear to be highly qualified for the job. We give the nod to Benson because of his proven track record as sheriff for the past eight years.

Benson has been in law enforcement for about 23 years, since he first worked as a dispatcher with the sheriff's office when he was 16. He served for four years in the Air Force and worked as an undercover officer around the state for several years. He worked as a security supervisor at F. Shumacher & Co., but decided after three years that he missed law enforcement, and joined the sheriff's office, where he rose to the position of chief investigator before being elected sheriff in 2000.

Smith, who lives in Great Falls, has about 16 years in law enforcement and is a graduate of the National FBI Criminal Academy, which teaches managerial skills designed for a law enforcement environment. He served for more than 20 years with the S.C. National Guard, including a one-year tour in Iraq. He has been Fort Lawn police chief for six years.

Both men agree that drugs and gangs pose a significant problem for the county. Smith noted that Chester County now is regarded as the "marijuana capital" of the state.

Benson said his office has eradicated 50,000 marijuana plants in recent months, and has arrested more than 500 people over the past two and a half years on charges of drug trafficking, distribution and gun possession, including some federal charges. His officers have worked with the State Law Enforcement Division, the FBI and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency on several operations in the county.

Smith said that Benson can be too quick to move in and destroy a marijuana field. He thinks the county would have better success at identifying higher ranking dealers if officers staked out the fields and waited to make arrests. He also suggests advising local hunters and hikers to report any suspicious fields they might run across.

Benson said anyone on the scene is apt to flee at the first sign of discovery. He touts his department's effective recruitment of drug informants.

Smith faults Benson for having only two full-time narcotics officers. Benson said his budget has changed little in five years, leading to the inability to fill positions when officers leave. He added that other officers assist the narcotics unit.

Both men agree that most local gangs are homegrown, although they do take inspiration from the infamous big-city gangs. Both hope to work with youth groups to help keep kids busy and off the streets.

Both men decry the backlog in the court docket. Both acknowledge the need to do something about the crumbling jail, with Benson insisting that a new facility is needed, which he thinks can be done at less expense than his opponents claim.

Again, both men appear well qualified. But Benson, we think, with a solid record of good law enforcement and good relations with the public, should be returned to office.