County in need of officers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 20, 2006

A new report illustrates what local law enforcement officials have been saying for years: There are not enough peace officers in Lawrence County.

The results of the first-ever statewide survey of peace officers, conducted by the Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission, was released earlier this month by Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro.

While many southern and/ or rural counties are understaffed, Lawrence County appears to be in worse shape than even some of its closest neighbors.

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“With this report, its not just me talking, it’s there in black and white,” Lawrence County Sheriff Tim Sexton said. “I have said before and sheriffs who had had this office before me have said that we need more people and I think this shows it.”

Combining all eight law enforcement agencies — the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office, the police departments in the city of Ironton and the villages of Hanging Rock, Coal Grove, South Point, Chesapeake, Proctorville and Athalia — Lawrence County has 51 full-time officers and a total of 132 officers, which includes part-time officers, special deputies, auxiliary officers and seasonal officers for its 62,319 residents according to the state survey.

That amounts to one full-time officer for every 1,221 residents and one officer total (full or part-time, special or otherwise designated) for every 472 people.

Sexton said he thought the actual number of full-time officers was lower than 51. He said with recent staff cuts — Athalia did away with its police department altogether and other villages have cut their numbers as well — he thought the actual figure was closer to 45.

The sheriff’s office has 15 road patrol deputies, two detectives and the sheriff. This does not include corrections officers at the jail who do not handle emergency calls.

Ironton Police Chief Jim Carey agreed that his department has been understaffed and overworked. The survey told him nothing he didn’t already know.

“From Feb 1 to June 31, our office has received 7,476 calls. Of those calls officers have been sent on 3,425 calls. Last year we filed roughly 800-900 reports. From February to June we’ve already done 1,071 reports,” Carey said. “And there have been times, after (retired Chief Bill) Garland left we’ve been down to eight or nine officers.” Carey said he hopes to have two new officers hired this week, one to fill the vacancy left when Capt. Jerry Leach retired and one new officer, thus increasing his staff to 15.

By comparison, Scioto County has 79,195 residents, 96 full-time officers and a total of 234 peace officers according to the statewide survey. That equates to one full-time officer for every 824 residents and one officer total for every 338 residents.

There is a similar situation in neighboring Athens County. With its population of 62,223, Athens has 108 full-time officers and a total of 212 peace officers. That equates to one officer for every 293 residents and only one full-time officer for every 576 residents.

With a population of 23,072, Meigs County has one officer for every 295 residents and only one full-time officer for every 1,214 residents.

According to the survey, statewide there are 2.12 full-time peace officers per 1,000 residents, or 1 officer for every 471.7 residents. The average number of full-time officers appointed by an agency is 24.7.

Noble County, with its 14,000 residents, has the least number of officers, 20 total and 8 full-time officers. That translates to one full-time officer for every 700 residents. Cuyahoga, with its 1.4 million residents, had the most number of officers, 4,566 total and 4,147 full-time officers. That amounts to one full-time officer for every 336 residents.

Carey said operating on a skeleton crew often hampers the ability of officers to handle the dearth of calls that come into his agency.

“Without enough people you just can’t give attention to everything you need to give attention to. And that’s what people sometimes don’t understand,” he said.

“They expect service.

It’s like a mother and she’s got three or four kids all yelling ‘mommy mommy help me’ and they all need help so which one do you help first? It’s like being in a boat that’s sinking and you’ve got 12 people drowning and which one do you try to save first?”

Sexton said he has managed to accomplish a great deal of work even with his less-than-ideal manpower circumstances. He has sought and obtained a number of state and federal grants to pay for crime prevention, drug offender apprehension and traffic enforcement.

The General Assembly mandated the statewide annual survey. It requires all agencies employing peace officers to supply a roster of their peace officer employees annually to Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission.

The law went into effect in 2002, but the 2005 survey is the first to receive rosters from each of the state’s nearly 1,000 law enforcement agencies.