Mineral County Sheriff Gary White feels a little overwhelmed some days.
Right now, the sheriff’s department has 10 deputies. But he said that’s not enough to cover the entire county -- all 327 square miles of it -- around the clock every day of the year. One deputy is responsible for monitoring and overseeing the home-confinement program, one is on the drug task force and one has not been through the Police Academy yet so he has to partner with another officer. That leaves just seven deputies including the chief deputy to enforce law at all times in the county.
So a few nights each week, from about midnight until about 7 a.m., no deputies are on duty. The only law enforcement in rural parts of the county comes from the local detachment of the West Virginia State Police, which is responsible for covering several counties in the region.
“Of course people are upset about it. You have people who are paying a tax for services and not getting it,” White said.
Mineral County is not alone. Research by The State Journal discovered that almost half of the sheriff’s departments in the state are unable to have deputies on duty around the clock. That’s especially the case in rural counties.
Of the 52 county sheriff’s departments interviewed, 13 have deputies who work after midnight or in the wee hours of the morning on an “on-call” basis. In addition, five counties rely entirely on the State Police to patrol their area late at night -- typically from midnight until 7 a.m. Another four counties have a hybrid system that blends deputy coverage with coverage from the State Police. The remaining 29 counties, mostly the more densely populated counties such as Kanawha, Cabell, Wood and Ohio counties, have shifts of deputies that work around the clock every day of the week.
The research indicates that rural and not-so-rural counties are seeing themselves rely more and more on the State Police to enforce law and order after midnight. The staffing the departments have currently, sheriffs from around the state said, is just not adequate to really serve and protect everyone within their individual counties.
The reasons come down to two simple issues: funding and staffing. Smaller counties just don’t have the tax base to support sheriff’s departments with enough deputies to cover calls around the clock, especially not when sheriffs have to factor in vacations, sick leave, personal days off, training time and officers who currently are deployed in the military. Plus sheriff’s departments are responsible for a lot more than just enforcing the law. They have to serve warrants, act as bailiffs for circuit and family courts, handle mental hygiene warrants for people who are believed to be a danger to themselves, and, if the county still has a jail or lockup facility, monitor and transport prisoners. And all of that is in addition to collecting county taxes, which is handled by a different division within a sheriff’s department.
It ends up being a lot of hats for any department.
“You just can’t do it,” said Braxton County Sheriff Howard Carpenter, whose department includes nine deputies. “We’ve got two major (highways) in Braxton County, two lakes, numerous campgrounds and an airport. How are we supposed to monitor all of that? When we get calls, we just have to take the worst ones first and deal with it, and sometimes the rest fall through the cracks. ... It’s not fair to the citizens of the county. They are the ones who pay for service. But we’re busy as heck up here.”
No Time for Crime
On the surface, maybe West Virginia’s current law enforcement levels are just fine. After all, the FBI and U.S. Census Bureau consistently show the state has a relatively low rate of violent crime.
But sheriffs said those rankings are no reason for the state to sit on its laurels, especially in light of two separate murders in Fayette and Nicholas counties over Memorial Day weekend that left five people dead. Plus, sheriffs said, the state has a huge drug problem that ranges from methamphetamine labs to huge marijuana and cocaine rings.
“We’ve got huge drug drops (in Braxton County). But we don’t have enough people to cover it,” Carpenter said, later adding, “I’d say about 90 percent of our crime is drug related. If someone is abusing or neglecting a child, chances are it’s drug related. If they’ll stealing, it’s drug related. Mostly, it’s a lot of pot right now, but we were second in the state in meth lab busts in 2005, and either third or fourth in 2006.
“We’ve spread the word meth won’t be allowed here, but now we have cocaine starting to come back in and pills.”
He said the county recently arrested a young woman accused of taping and tying a elderly woman up in her bed and stealing the her medicine.
“Here in the center part of the state, we get everything,” he said.
State Police Col. David Lemmon said his agency has helped county sheriff departments cover midnight shifts for years, responding to emergency calls as they come in.
“It’s a collaborative effort to back one another,” he said.
Like many sheriff departments, the State Police has troopers who are on-call in the late-night and early-morning hours. Lemmon said the troopers are not paid to be on-call unless they are called out. Once that happens, they start getting paid.
“We have a lot of detachments that answer calls in almost every county, especially those that have a smaller number of men,” he said.
But he said to have a 24/7 coverage, a detachment really needs to have at least seven troopers.
“It would be tough to have it with fewer than that,” he said.
And some of those detachments don’t have that many troopers.
“We work very well with the State Police, but they are shorthanded, too,” said Mineral County’s White.
The shortage of deputies also makes it difficult for sheriff’s departments to do routine patrols.
“We just go from call to call,” White said. “The only time we can actually do road patrols is when we are doing seatbelt checkpoints or DUI checkpoints.”
Hardy County is in a bit of a different situation. Sheriff Robert Ferrell said his department has eight deputies plus a resource officer who works in the local schools. The deputies work eight-hour shifts with at least one officer working until between 2 and 3 a.m. After that, emergencies are answered by a deputy who is on-call. That deputy begins getting paid once he turns on his cruiser and hits the road.
“Plus, I’m always on-call,” he said.
State Police work in conjunction with the on-call deputy, especially if the emergency is occurring in the opposite part of the county from where the deputy is.
Ferrell said the construction of Corridor H has opened new challenges for the two agencies.
“It helps us respond better, but it opened up the county to a lot more traffic and problems,” he said.
Ferrell said he knows a lot of other counties aren’t as fortunate as his.
“I know of a couple of departments where they close down from midnight to 8 a.m.,” he said. “That’s scary, but what else can they do?”
Ferrell said another big challenge facing the Eastern Panhandle counties is that new residents moving in from more metropolitan areas, such as suburban Washington, D.C., expect to have around-the-clock and immediate police service.
“They come here and build their house or their second vacation home, and they expect the same response time as in the city,” he said. “They don’t want to hear we just can’t do that.”
Sheriffs say they only can do so much. While they are independently elected county officers, they have little or no control over their budget. That decision is made by county commissioners. Those commissioners determine what the sheriff’s department budget will be and how it can be spent.
In every county, that’s a tough balancing act.
“The biggest part of any county’s budget is the sheriff’s department,” said Patti Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties. “If a county adds more deputies, it means it has to take away something from some other department.”
She said right now, the only way for counties to enlarge the budget for law enforcement and other departments is either to increase the property tax collections in a county by getting more taxable land and property through economic development or through tax increases. In most West Virginia counties, the second option happens more often than the first.
Wirt County, for example, has an operating levy that not only supports the two-man sheriff’s department, but also helps support all county operations.
“I’d love to hire three or four more deputies, but our budget doesn’t allow it,” said Wirt County Sheriff Andrew Cheuvront. “We’ve got 6,000 residents and 232 square miles. It’s hard to cover that with just me and a deputy, but you’d be surprised to see how many grand jury indictments and convictions we get.”
Hamilton said counties right now aren’t allowed to levy user fees like more and more cities are doing.
“The city of Charleston alleviated its law enforcement shortage with a user fee,” she said. “Counties can have a law enforcement levy, but it’s tough to get those levies passed these days.”
White knows that well. In 2004, the Mineral County Commission spent $30,000 on a law enforcement levy that would enable his department to hire more deputies. Voters turned it down. He said the county may try putting it on the ballot again next year, but he’s a little pessimistic.
“If we decide to do it again, we’ve just spent $60,000 trying to get a levy passed,” he said.
He could have hired more officers for that kind of money.
And Randolph County Sheriff Jack Roy said levies come with their own set of problems.
“You never know when the levy will get voted down,” he said. “Then what happens to the officers you hired?”
A Plan for the Future
So what is the solution?
Different departments have tried different things. In Hardy County, Ferrell tried opening satellite offices for deputies close to different communities. But even that didn’t solve all of the problems because a midnight deputy or one at home on-call lives in one part of the county and the emergency could happen at the extreme opposite end of the county.
“You can’t require a deputy to live in a specific area of the county,” he said. “Plus, when you’re off duty, you don’t want to be called in to work. When I was first a deputy, a lot of people would just come over to my house. When you’re off work, maybe you don’t want people knocking on your door.”
White said he came up with a plan for Mineral County to hire two officers this year, skip hiring next year, and then hire another deputy in two years. After that, his plan calls for hiring one new officer every other year. But right now, the county can’t afford it.
“I know we have funding needs, but we are about six to eight deputies short for our size county,” he said. “I’m not saying we need eight deputies today, but it would be nice to have a plan.”
Hamilton said one common complaint she hears from county officials is that when they do hire new deputies, they spend a lot of time and money getting them certified and sending them to the Police Academy only to have the officers leave a few years later, thus putting the county back in a familiar predicament.
She said she’s heard of a few counties that want to have deputies sign contracts when they are hired on, promising to work with the county for so many years. If they leave before that time is up, the deputies have to pay back a portion of the money spent training them.
That may discourage some deputies from leaving the force, she said. And if they do leave, the money they pay can then help the sheriff’s department hire and train new employees, she said.
But Melissa Garretson with the West Virginia Sheriffs Association said she didn’t think that would help on a widespread basis.
“Roane County had a big issue with guys leaving because of pay,” she said. “Even if those deputies signed a contract, they’d leave after the contract was up for higher paying jobs. The issue is that deputies are not being paid enough. Some of the salaries across the state are not good. To put your life in jeopardy for $20,000 a year is not worth it.”
Pay is a big issue for the West Virginia Fraternal Order of Police, too. State FOP President Stephen Walker said many deputies are making minimum wage, or slightly higher.
But he said he has a possible solution to both that and the law enforcement shortage. He suggested that small communities that want to start a police department could instead contract with their local sheriff’s office. He envisions small cities and villages paying the sheriff’s department a set amount that would guarantee a certain amount of law enforcement hours within that community.
“It would help out on two factions. First, it would add more deputies to the road patrol, and second, it would also guarantee the city has police protection,” he said.
Some people believe the solution has to come from a higher power than even the state: the federal government. Back in the 1990s, the federal government launched the COPS grant program. That program gave federal dollars to cities, counties and states to hire more law enforcement officers. It was effective, funneling millions of dollars into communities nationwide. It resulted in the hiring of thousands of new police officers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
But grants, like levies, can disappear. That means counties could be stuck with an even higher law enforcement bill than they have now.
But White said that risk may be worth it. Federal grants helped to get more officers on the street several years ago. And it can help again now, especially in an age where the war on terror is on the front page every day.
“We’ve got all of these issues in this day and age of homeland security,” he said. “But as far as protecting the homeland, we aren’t doing it. There just aren’t enough people.”
Mineral County Sheriff Gary White feels a little overwhelmed some days.
Angela Garcia, 73, of Fairmont, and formerly of the Rock Lake Community, passed away on Tuesday, November 24, 2020 at the John Manchin Sr. Health Care Center. She was born on December 9, 1946 in Fairmont to the late Diego and Maria Hermosilla Garcia. Angela received her master's degree from …
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