Empire residents get more patrolling to curb speeders

By ED HOWELL, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 4/20/17

A group of citizens held a successful meeting with officials about speeding on Empire Road, and have obtained more patrolling for the road — and feel they now understand the shortages that make it more difficult for deputies to patrol.

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Empire residents get more patrolling to curb speeders


A group of citizens held a successful meeting with officials about speeding on Empire Road, and have obtained more patrolling for the road — and feel they now understand the shortages that make it more difficult for deputies to patrol.

While residents are happy with the response from the Walker County Sheriff’s Department and are more educated about its challenges, Sheriff Jim Underwood noted his staff is struggling to meet manpower needs for speeding and other incidents.

Mike and Debbie Cupps, who live on Empire Road, hosted a meeting recently at their home in the wake of an accident involving a neighbor, Jimmy Weeks, 89. A driver hit Weeks at his mailbox, seriously injuring Weeks and requiring a medical airlift, the Cupps said recently

Mrs. Cupps said, “There’s a lot of passing and a lot of speeding out here,” pointing out many vehicles are taking shortcuts to major routes on the road.

J.M. Cook, another resident in the area, said, “We got some speeders who are awful fast. This is dangerous road where they are speeding.” He said he knew of about six fatalities on Empire Road in about the past three years.

“The log trucks and some of these four-wheelers, they pass the double yellow line and everything else,” Cook said. “This county road is not built for trucking.” 

Log trucks are coming from across the surrounding area in large numbers, in many instances avoiding travel Highway 69 and entering Cullman County in order to avoid scales, he said.

“It is a situation that has to be handled, and it has to be handled quick,” Cook said.

Cook and his wife, Jessie, as well as the Cupps, got the meeting together, she said, noting the Cupps have lived for many years on the road.

Despite double lines on the road, there has been much passing and speeding on the road, she said. They did not see sheriff’s cars and little signage on the road. Mrs. Cupps said she has had to get off the road to avoid being hit.

Using connections, the neighbors called Underwood, District 4 Walker County Commissioner Steven Aderholt, holding a meeting with them on April 6. A total of 15 people attended, including a diverse number of people from the community, she said. Underwood could not attend, but Chief Deputy Dayron Bridges represented Underwood at the meeting.

Others who attended the meeting, according to Mrs. Cupps, were Effie Davenport, David Day, John Bland, Erica Williams, Vera Howard, Sonia Gosha, Regina Carden, Joel Canden, and Rodney Williams.

“We actually brought to attention our community” and some of the speeding issues, she said. “Mr. Bridges said they didn’t realize Empire was having all these issues.”

Cupps said Bridges vowed to make others in the department aware of the problem the next morning.

“We’ll address it,” Cupps quoted him as saying, adding, “Well, They’ve addressed it.” The couple said more patrolling is being seen on the road.

In the end, she said Aderholt said more signs would be made for the road. A few signs are now going up.

“They’re following up with what they said they would do,” Cupps said.

“The meeting wound up being a town hall meeting,” he said. “It was a great interaction with Steven Aderholt and the sheriff’s office. We shared some of our problems out here.” 

In return, Aderholt shared with the citizens about the county’s need for a 1-cent sales tax increase, which commissioners are working to get on the ballot this summer to avoid a $1.4 million debt in the coming year’s budget.

Commissioners have said in a recent handout $4.2 million of the $7 million raised each year from the tax would go for road, bridge and infrastructure improvements. Another $500,000 would go for public safety needs.

“We were not even aware about the county tax,” he said. “It was a very informative meeting.” 

Mrs. Cupps said it was helpful to understand what the county officials go through, noting four deputies are on any given shift and some deputies are pulled off the road when the courts are in session, as they need bailiffs.

“We need to look at that as a community to see what we can do about that, because that is not sufficient for our area,” with more than 200 miles of roads in Aderholt’s District 4.

“They are way overworked. They don’t have enough manpower. They are doing the best they can with the resources they have,” Cupps said.

Cook agreed, saying he had seen more patrolling as well despite the manpower shortage.

“Jim Underwood is doing a good job with his deputies,” he said. “We appreciate what he has done.” 

He also said he was for the new sales tax “if it is earmarked for schools and roads.”

The town hall setting went so well that the Cupps and the neighbors are looking at arranging similar meetings. Cupps said a meeting will be held at the old union hall in Empire in about three months and another one into the summer at an undetermined site. Bridges and Aderholt said they would be willing to come to a future meeting, and resident participants have continued to network with each other.

“We’ve always communicated as neighbors, but we have never communicated with each other like this,” Mrs. Cupps said, noting a community blog is also being created.

For his part, Underwood said since the meeting, deputies have written 11 to 15 citations for speeding and other traffic violations.

“We have been active out there and patrolling, stopping vehicles and citing them for traffic violations,” he said.

One development that has helped in the effort has been the fact the department acquired two radar guns about six months ago, when it had not beforehand, Underwood said. Before the purchase, it was more difficult to back up speeding violations.

“I was embarrassed to say we were the sheriff’s department and we didn’t have any way to detect any speed,” Underwood said. “We didn’t have equipment of any kind. I hated to tell citizens complaining about speeding we didn’t have any way if we took someone to court on a speeding violation that we could prove it, but now we can.” 

As for deputy shortages, he noted three have resigned lately, one to take another job and two to go to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Police Department, which pays $7 more an hour than Underwood’s department.

While he is looking to fill the three slots, added to the problem is the county’s funding shortage, which restricts hiring additional manpower beyond the current staffing levels.

He noted call volumes coming into the department has increased significantly, making it difficult to sit for long periods with a radar gun. Officers are rushing from one incident to another, while investigators are so stacked with cases that deputies are now making felony cases, he said. “I think probably one of the most complicated jobs for management here at the sheriff’s office is finding enough pegs to fill the holes,” he said. “If they don’t pass the 1-cent sales tax, it won’t be good for the sheriff’s department or any of the other departments, because we’re already strapped like it is. It is not going to get any better.”