Defending the law

A truly eventful day for me.

It all started at 9:30 a.m. with a Jones County Commissioners’ meeting. These bi-weekly events usually aren’t too action-packed for me, as this is a county of about 10,500 people and two stop lights. It’s a big county, too – the fourth-largest in North Carolina.

The prospect of any Earth-shattering news that’s important to more than 5,000 or so people is pretty low. But I love the place, nonetheless.

So today was living up to my expectations until toward the end of the meeting when the board’s vice chairman chimed in.

“I just want to address the newspaper,” the outspoken elderly and affluent woman said. She looked right at me. “I was reading the paper last week and I wanted to throw up. Accusing the commissioners of not taking care of law enforcement in this community by bringing up (an incident where an elderly couple hit a deer in November, totaling their car and leaving them stranded on a nighttime shoulder of a windy road for an hour and a half until law enforcement arrived) was just wrong.

“You didn’t tell the whole story.”

Okay, here’s the deal: nine lawmen cover the entire county. The national average for sheriff office coverage is 1.4 deputies per 1,000 people. So, they’re about five short in Jones County.

This is a very bad thing, one I am particularly moved by. They have two deputies on duty at all times. The trouble with that formula is if there’s a domestic dispute or a potentially dangerous situation, both lawmen are going to it., which means if something else happens during the time they’re responding to that potentially dangerous situation, that person’s out of luck.

Sort of like the elderly couple stranded on the side of a road.

Police and firemen are the backbone of this country. Government agencies should stop at nothing to provide them with whatever they need because if they don’t, they’re putting these brave men and women at risk. And, mind you, they’re being put at risk for the sake of residents.

My theory is this: if a law enforcement agency has a need, the state, county or municipality governing them can’t afford to help, that entity shouldn’t spend a dime on anything else. This includes trips for commissioners, roofs for civic centers and county road projects.

Raise taxes if you have to – my experience tells me taxpayers would gladly pay as long as they knew it was to keep them safe.

Luckily, I didn’t have to respond to this commissioner. It was an awkward situation for me anyway because part of me wanted to shoot back with what I just said but realized that would be my opinion and that’s not really important in my profession, and part of me said to hold back because she was acting extremely unprofessional and lowering myself to her level would make me (and the paper) look bad.

But the sheriff, who was conveniently at the meeting, spoke for me. I listened to a three-minute rant – much of which included a very elevated voice – by him toward the commissioner. Naturally, he was defending what I’d printed. I brought up a very good point, he said, and he was glad I did.

I was moved, most of all, by the number of residents who spoke on behalf of what I’d said.

“We’re building this town up but the thugs are tearing it down,” one man said regarding a recent string of break-ins. He was joined by the grumbling of several others – all who made the commissioner, who was so high and mighty when she opened up the topic, silent.

The people had spoken, elected official. And it turns out they agree with me. Deal with it.

I did address her briefly, only because I wanted to let her know I would stand my ground. I was proud of what I’d printed.

“First of all, if this is a problem you have with me, I think it would be best if you gave me a call. But if the commissioners feel the same way, then let’s do this,” I said confidently.

She shot her fellow officials a look.

“Oh, we’ve talked about it and they feel the same way,” she said.

“Fine. Well, when it takes an hour and a half for law enforcement to respond to a car accident that could have killed someone in the process, there’s something wrong with that. I know it’s technically highway patrol’s responsibility, but you and I both know if the sheriff’s office weren’t running a skeleton operation someone would have been there to at least sit behind the crash site with their emergency lights on to let other motorists know to be careful.

“Aside from that, what I wrote was a column and I’m entitled to my opinion – everything I brought up was factual, so I am offended you have the nerve to disrespect my freedom of speech because I reported the news.”

She then asked the sheriff how many deputies he wanted, to which he responded “the national average.”

I hope I’m around the day five more deputies are hired. I hope this gets the people thinking about things. I hope I made a difference.

After all, at the wages I make, it’s what I truly consider a paycheck.

And this evening … another police-type story. The town of La Grange has asked the Lenoir County Commissioners for the go-ahead on a plan to drop its own police force in exchange for coverage for the Lenoir County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s cheaper, gives lawmen more resources and provides a greater amount of police coverage. However, what will happen with current town police officers is yet to be determined – there’s murmurs of the sheriff hiring them and keeping them in La Grange, but nothing’s in stone because the plan hasn’t been accepted.

When I initially broke the story last month, I called around the state to towns who have done the same thing and got their feedback. The verdict: it’s an awesome idea, according to most.

From what I’ve gathered and heard from town officials, it is an awesome idea. Believe me, I’m always looking for a plan’s drawback, but the possibility of current town officers losing their jobs is about all I can find.

Not that that’s a little issue. But it’s looking to me like it won’t be too much of a concern, since the only lawmen who might be out of work are the part-timers with the department who, chances are, are part-time for a reason. I don’t think they were looking to stay in La Grange anyway.

Naturally, the TV news reported what it wanted to report. It tracked down the scrappiest people who clearly don’t keep up with the news and asked them, I presume, how they would feel if there were less police coverage.

I watched the 11 p.m. edition a little irritated, but not surprised. These guys are the reason people hate the media – they sensationalized a story that wasn’t too much of an issue. On top of that, they chose the wrong point to relay incorrectly: they should have focused on the possibility of cops losing their jobs, not the alleged lack of police coverage, which was more than adequately addressed by the town manager.

Ah well. I’m sure I’ll be getting phone calls from people complaining about “my” mistakes because of something they saw on the TV news. Most who give me these calls don’t even read the paper from what I gather.

Anyway, big day tomorrow. Scheduled to appear in court is a former probation officer charged in 2005 for taking bribes because in exchange for access to strip shows, among other things, he allegedly allowed a parolee to exchange “clean” urine for the genuine article, which was riddled with drugs, according to the indictment.

As far as I know, he’s been sitting in jail in lieu of a $60,000 bond. My question, though, is why it took the grand jury two years to put the indictment together – I smell a “time served” sentence in the works here.

Tomorrow’s only an administrative session, but if he’d entered a plea, we’ll hear about it then. He could be released on the spot if he’s struck a deal with the district attorney’s office.

There’s also some scumbag who’s been charged with first degree rape of a child between the ages of 4 and 6. His indictment really doesn’t divulge a lot of details surrounding the situation, so I’ll see if I can make him a superstar in the local paper tomorrow.

I just don’t know if I can sacrifice my whole day sitting in court, although I’d really, really like to.

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