Residents show support for Oakboro chief, call town’s actions ‘a witch hunt’

The hallway outside the meeting room of the Oakboro Town Commission was crowded Monday night with supporters for the town’s police chief.

T. J. Smith, who was recently suspended for two weeks, returned to work several weeks ago and was present at Monday’s meeting.

During the open forum session, members of the community spoke to the town commissioners regarding their feelings about Smith. Many carried signs showing their support for the Oakboro police chief.

Heather Rushing Cheney said Smith “is the kind of person I want to be a leader.” She added he “cares about the town of Oakboro” and that her children looked up to Smith.

“I just think we should put all of the vaccine, masks, aside and really look at the human we have and the way he puts Oakboro above everything,” she said.

Sinka Kenerly, who said she recently moved to Oakboro, said Smith “has become my family” since moving to town. She added Smith’s punishment “does not fit the crime.”

She said she would be bringing concerns to the town about its policies and procedures, but added the town should “take into consideration how much we love him.” She also added “there are bad people in this world and (TJ) is the type of person we need on the streets so we can get them off the streets.”

Joshua Ballinger, a U.S. Army veteran who served three tours in Iraq, commended the police chief for being “an officer that upholds his oath” to support and defend the Constitution.

He called the town’s actions against Smith “a witch hunt.”

Alexis Hughes, a former 911 operator, said she has had “the distinct privilege to watch Chief T.J. lead his officers in this community” during a past protest at Oakboro STEM School. She said Smith made the school grounds safe for kids while protecting the group’s right to protest freely and peacefully assemble.

“Chief T.J. does not need to be cancelled for this. He is good for the town of Oakboro.”

Jesse Lewis, the last speaker, complained about a door being closed between the hallway and the meeting room, where commissioners and staff walk through to get to their seats.

As he moved forward to open the door, Smith asked him to stop, which Lewis did.

Lewis said the door being closed was symbolic as “the same way the townspeople feel about this board.”

According to a letter released in December by Oakboro Town Administrator Doug Burgess, Smith is still in six months of probation for “detrimental personal conduct including notifying law enforcement officers to attend a ‘clinic’ where they would be able to obtain proof of COVID-19 vaccination cards without being vaccinated.”

The State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Pharmacy Board continue to look into the claims against Smith.