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Sheriff's officials outline challenges, opportunities in first public meeting

Attendance at the sheriff department's first town hall meeting held in Dearing last Wednesday was low, but those who attended did not regret it.

"I think it is totally astounding what I have heard here tonight. ... I have learned so much. ... I'm sorry there's not more people here. This has opened my eyes," said McDuffie resident Nancy Kay.

Seventeen local residents and council members gathered in the cafeteria of Dearing Elementary to listen to a presentation by the sheriff's department and ask questions. The meeting was the first of a series of meetings to be held throughout the county to address the growing trend of crime and involve local citizens with the law enforcement.

"An informed public is our best tool against crime, so I wish more people came," Sheriff Logan Marshall said, adding that he was expecting to see at least 50 citizens. "But I still don't think it was a waste of time. I am appreciative of those that did come. And those that didn't, they missed something."

Maj. Ronnie Williamson, Communications Director Tracy Neal, Sgt. Mike Hobbs and Capt. Chris Durden gave a presentation describing the divisions in the department, the responsibilities each division has, the problems they face and what citizens can do.

The detention division is overseen by Capt. Durden.

He said the jail has 220 beds and averages 165 inmates per day with four jailers working each shift.

"We keep more people in jail than Columbia County," Sheriff Marshall said. "They have 115 deputies and we have 12."

The McDuffie County jail also houses criminals for Warren and Glascock counties. Captain Durden addressed misconceptions about the jail, saying there is no cable television and that by law, the inmates cannot be forced to work.

In addition to housing, clothing, feeding, counseling and providing medical attention to each inmate, the captain said the jail's volunteer kitchen staff prepares 2,200 meals each month for local senior citizens.

Even larger numbers were presented by Mr. Neal who oversees the 911 division. Mr. Neal said more than 118,000 calls were processed in 2006 by his staff of eight, which works two dispatchers per shift.

"When there's a bad wreck on I-20, then everybody who has a cell phone calls because they think they are the only ones to call," Mr. Neal said. "And those two operators have to listen to every one of them."

The 911 center has Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf and TeleTypewriters, computer aided dispatch, a language line with interpretation of more than 130 dialects, HAM radio capabilities and a Data Transmission Network weather satellite receiver.

Mr. Neal gave tips on when and how to make a 911 call and ways to ensure a quick response. He also gave examples of improper calls the department receives, and explained how each call ties up an operator.

"If your power is out, don't call us," he said. "We will just have to dial the exact same number you do to report it."

Sgt. Hobbs said the road patrol division not only responds to calls, but they also serve civil papers for the court, transport prisoners and transport juveniles to youth facilities. Deputies must also guard prisoners in court as there is no holding cell at the courthouse.

Finally, Maj. Williamson said the criminal investigations division is taken care of by Inv. Larry Adaway.

Maj. Williamson said the department has "to rob Peter to pay Paul," and deputies must work over time to accomplish all of the mandated responsibilities. But being short-handed does not mean the department is ineffective.

"Those two or three people that we bring in response to a call, let me tell you, when we bring them, we come in there ready to do business," Sgt. Hobbs said. "And those two or three can handle what those other counties need 10-12 to handle."

Another point of pride in the department is how much revenue they generate. Maj. Williamson said in 2006, the department earned over $1,165,000 by housing inmates for other counties and serving civil court papers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we paid half of our total budget back into the general fund," the major said. "So when we make our budget, we are conscious of what we are spending."

The sheriff's department was denied an increase for additional personnel from the 2008 budget by McDuffie County Commissioners on Aug. 1. Maj. Williamson asked that each citizen voice their support for the sheriff's office by attending commission meetings and staying informed on how their money is being spent.

The officials spent at least half of an hour responding to questions after the presentation. Free gun locks also were distributed to anyone who wanted them. Two citizens, who asked not to be named, approached Dearing Mayor Sean Kelley after the meeting to find out who represents them in the county commission.

And in an interview after the meeting, Sgt. Hobbs said even though the attendance was low, if each one in attendance would tell all their friends what they learned, an accomplishment would be made. Unknown to him, his wish was materializing.

"It was surprising to hear what they had to say. It was informative," Shannon Albert said. "I will tell everybody. It will definitely be the topic of conversation at soccer practice at Sweetwater tomorrow."

Web posted on Thursday, September 27, 2007

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