CH council cool to sheriff plan for policing

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CARBON HILL - Mayor April Kennedy Herron and the Carbon Hill City Council indicated last week they are not in favor of allowing the city to contract with the Walker County Sheriff's Office for the city's policing duties. 

A work session was held Thursday night where Sheriff Nick Smith and Nick Key, the director of operations for the department, where they talked to the council about the idea.

Officials revealed that discussions for the Sheriff's Office being in charge had been held as far back as a year, with Herron was on the council. Key pointed out that a story in the Daily Mountain Eagle about the city's struggling finances had been a reason why the idea was first brought up as a possibility. He and Smith decided to form a plan similar to one implemented in April 2019 to police Sipsey, as the department there was dissolved due to declining finances, despite high levels of crime.  

Key said Sipsey pays the cost of a deputy who is dedicated solely to policing Sipsey, replacing its sole officer and police chief. The officer is dedicated to eight hours of work each day. 

Since taking over, the deputy has made 209 arrests, 42 being drug arrests. Drugs have been confiscated, and one suspect was captured during a burglary in progress. "Six drug traffickers who were selling drugs in the Sipsey community were captured and put in jail," Key said. The overall numbers outpaced the numbers of the old police department over a four-year combined period. 

"That plan has worked out wonderful," Key said, noting Sipsey's reserve fund has gone from $8,000 or $9,000 to more than $40,000 due to savings. As they are still employing law enforcement, they retain the status of a town.

Smith said the town could later still change back to have its own police department if it wants to, with Key noting the long-term goal for the sheriff and the town is to re-establish a police department. 

"At some point, we want Sipsey to re-establish its police department," he said. 

"It wouldn't be a long-term thing. We are trying to help Sipsey financially stable so they could better serve their citizens," Smith said. 

However, Herron and the council said the city's finances have improved since then. While they praised Smith and the department for their work, they also noted the improvement and that they would like to try to make the police department work. They said a few years down the road they might explore the idea again, but not now. 

City leaders also noted that voters and businessmen had complained about the idea as it floated across the city during the municipal elections in August. They said there was no desire seen by citizens in town. 

Herron also noted her concern about laying off city employees. Smith and Key indicated that under the plan, police officers and dispatchers would be laid off, but they could apply to be hired by the Sheriff's Office if positions are available. 

Key noted a Carbon Hill plan would be larger than Sipsey "at a cost you could afford." The cost per deputy, including full family medical coverage and retirement, is $42,972.58. There would also be a $10,000 charge for dealing with related expenses, such as vehicle maintenance, gas and court appearances, among other things. 

Under the plan - which would still have to be discussed with the Walker County Commission - five full-time deputies could be devoted to Carbon Hill $264,862.90, while Carbon Hill's police budget is $300,000. Herron said the city usually has four full-time officers, although it is short an officer at the moment. The city would have a say in how the officers are scheduled. 

Smith said it would involve a sergeant and four deputies, with the sergeant like a police chief over day-to-day operations. Sheriff's Office investigators would be investigating crimes, and some information could go to the narcotics unit. 

He also noted his investigators have a 65 percent rate for solving crimes, and property crimes have come down 44 percent across the county. 

"You're not just getting five deputies. You're getting the entire Sheriff's Office and the manpower that comes along in that when it is necessary," Smith said. 

Liability would be taken off the city if a suit is filed, and those employees who might be hired from Carbon Hill would be given county civil service protection. He did note he cannot just hire who he wants, as they have to go through the county's civil service hiring process, allowing the sheriff to pick the top three off the resulting list. Dispatchers would go under almost the exact same the same process, except for a physical phase. 

Key noted the city would be "involved in the hiring process" for the officers assigned to Carbon Hill, as the prospective names can be run by city officials. 

Law enforcement equipment would be provided to the Sheriff's Office, but the equipment would go back to the city if it pulled out of the agreement, Key said. Inventory and maintenance would be kept up by the Sheriff's Office while it sent in deputies. He later said the city would give what equipment "the council feels comfortable sliding to us. If you don't feel comfortable with it, we don't take it." 

Smith noted that plans like this are set in smaller Jefferson County municipalities. Key said Graysville used it for a long time. Also, Smith noted at least twice before during his 16 years in local law enforcement that discussions have been held about plans for Carbon Hill shutting down its police and whatever deputies working the west side responding to calls - which is not how he said he wanted to operate. 

In the past 20 months in Carbon Hill, Smith said his department has arrested 19 individuals for selling drugs and 238 arrests were made by patrol deputies, as well as conduct four safety checks. 

The sheriff noted the city would save money in dispatching, although he didn't know if the city would keep municipal court or not, saying that was a legal question. Those arrested would go to the county jail in Jasper, although he noted Sipsey and Nauvoo have sheriff substations for holding until they can be picked up. 

Key also noted city ordinances cannot usually be enforced by the Sheriff's Office, although there is a legal process that can be taken through the court system to start that. 

Smith added it is hard to find good law enforcement officers, and that he now requires deputies to start at the jail to give him time to learn that person's character and work ethic before he sends them to the academy. This weeds out officers who have a history of "bouncing around" from one department to another. 

District 3 Councilman David Phillips commended Smith and the Sheriff's Office for their work, and believes in relationships between the city and that office, but added Sipsey never could afford a full-time department as coal revenue has dried up and the school left. 

"Carbon Hill is a little different. We have revenue. We can sustain a police department," he said. "We have a better sense of community and hope to build that more." He also said a county office cannot run the services like a city can, and he said city equipment will depreciate in value once used by Sheriff's Office, even if it is later returned. 

He said manpower would be controlled by the county, although Key said the sergeant would be available to the mayor and council. The difference in the systems would be the city would otherwise other incurred costs to deal with, such as dispatch, overtime, vehicle maintenance, city court and insurance, Key said. 

Herron said she is concerned about switching as dispatchers recognize residents and their situations, noting an elderly widow called days earlier about smoke detector going off and needing batteries because she has no one else to call. An officer responded, buying different batteries because he didn't know which size was needed. 

Otherwise, she would have to call for a county officer she didn't know to take it upon himself to help. "And that happens weekly," she added. "It's the community aspect about it that I worry about. Sometimes it is not always about money. We're not as in bad a financial shape that everybody wants to let on." 

However, Key said the city could easily hire someone who is not from Carbon Hill, which would not be any different. Herron said the dispatcher knew the woman, and the officer didn't. 

Smith said it would "not hurt his feelings" if the city was not interested in the plan.

Herron, who was on the council when she moved up to be mayor earlier this year, said she didn't feel like she and the present council have had the opportunity to build a good department. All of the council members have taken seats since August 2019 after resignations or elections, and District 6's seat still has not been filled. 

"I would like an opportunity to see how well we can do," she said, noting she told voters she was open to all options, but was not "just for dissolving the police department outright. I won by a landslide." 

She added she worries if the county takes over, people will stop calling dispatch, as they stopped for a long time thinking there would be no response. Citizens are beginning to start calling again, she said. 

District 5 Jewell Hess said she felt the city needed to keep its own station and improve the department, noting the city needed a chief "with good character."