Sheriff's department still at work but gradually feeling impacts from COVID-19

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Though no inmates or employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the Walker County Sheriff's Office is feeling the effects of the pandemic in other ways. 

Calls and violent crimes are trending upward, and sales of pistol permits are down from between $16,000 to $20,000 a month to around $1,000 a week. 

The latter has resulted in four part-time office employees who handle the necessary paperwork being sent home because their salaries are paid out of pistol permit proceeds.

Sheriff Nick Smith is also working on a plan that would move corrections staff to a seven days on, seven days off schedule to reduce the number of employees who could be impacted if one were to test positive for COVID-19. 

Though deputies are wearing masks and gloves and taking non-emergency reports over the phone in order to limit their interaction with the public, Smith stressed that all of the departments, including patrol deputies and the narcotics division, are working as they normally would.

"We are the one organization in the entire county that cannot pack up and go home. We're not going to stop doing our job. We're going to work through this together and take all of the precautions and measures," Smith said.

The sheriff's department responded to 1,700 calls in March, up from 1,344 calls in January and 1,277 in February.  

The final week of March was an especially busy time with two homicides and four individuals being arrested for burglary and receiving stolen property. Domestic violence calls are also up slightly — 98 in March compared to 88 in January and 90 in February.

Smith is concerned that the number will continue to increase the longer that couples are at home together because of the pandemic, and he is also worried that thefts and home invasions will go up in the coming weeks.

"The criminal element that exists in this county is not going away. It's not going to stop because of COVID-19. People who are used to breaking in to someone's house to steal in order to pay for their fix are eventually going to get desperate and break in on people who are home," Smith said.

Several employees and inmates have been tested for COVID-19 in recent weeks, and all test results have come back negative, according to Smith.

Temperatures of inmates and employees are being monitored, and at least one inmate brought to the jail by a municipal department was not allowed the enter the jail when it was learned that he had a temperature of 102 degrees.

Most of the jail population reside in pods and have been in jail prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Precautions are being taken to ensure that corrections officers and other employees are not bringing the virus into the pods. Visitation has been suspended.

Those who are newly arrested are being placed in a quarantine dorm, and most are being released on bail within two to three days, according to Smith. If an inmate within the quarantine dorm were to test positive for COVID-19, he would be treated in the dorm and healthy, non-violent inmates would be moved to two Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) tents that have been set up behind the jail.

The tents can hold up to 34 inmates, and inmates would be guarded by corrections officers after the move.

Smith will be reimbursed for the purchase of the tents through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"This is for a worst-case scenario," Smith said.

Though a decimated workforce or inmates being exposed to COVID-19 would be a crisis, Smith is equally concerned about the financial repercussions of the virus.

Pistol permit proceeds are used as discretionary funds by sheriffs around the state.

Though the lobby remains open so that residents can renew in person and the form is available on the department's website, walkercountysheriff.com, fewer people are choosing to renew at this time.

"For those last two weeks of March, we made between $1,500 and $2,000. If that trend continues, we may make $4,000 for the month where we usually made $16,000 or $20,000," Smith said.

That means less discretionary funding to cover the cost of training or equipment.

The process for renewing the permit currently requires mailing back a form with a check to cover the cost of the permit. A plan is in the works to allow individuals to pay online, Smith said.

Smith is concerned not only about the drop in discretionary funding but also that a drop in county revenue because of the pandemic will affect the budget. 

The Eagle recently reported on a staffing increase that Smith oversaw in his first year in office. The patrol division, which includes deputies and sergeants, has increased from 16 to 27 with an additional eight deputies who are designated as part-time. 

The number of investigators has increased from five to seven, and the number of narcotics investigators has doubled from two to five. 

"The longer this drags out, we could be looking at drastic cuts come October," Smith said.