If deputies wave, they'll fit in town

Friday, August 28, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

In a little town like South Lebanon, where everyone waves and says hello, where everyone knows everyone else, doubts can do you in.

Since July, residents of this village of 2,800 have heard allegations about the town's police department. Over time the allegations raised doubts, doubts about the ability of the four-man police force to do its job.

South Lebanon's police department was called "a cancer" by the mayor as he discussed allegations of missing police property, time-consuming internal investigations and a general air of infighting that some in town felt had crippled the department's ability to police the village.

On Monday night, the village council dissolved the department. South Lebanon is now patrolled by Warren County Sheriff's deputies.

Doubts did the force in. And still there are mixed feelings around the village where familiarity is as prized as a warm summer evening.

The council vote to dissolve the department was 5-1. But after a day hearing out residents, I might calculate a less lopsided split around Warren County's oldest community.

"They were good guys, good cops. But a change had to be made," said Karen Baker, owner of the video store in the heart of town.

"You heard bad things about them," she said as she wiped some dust off her counter. "This is a small town. Everyone knows everybody. These things bothered people, even though it was rumors and hearsay."

"It makes you feel uneasy," said Alice Carmack. "And you don't want to feel that way about your police."

A lifelong resident of South Lebanon, Alice runs the SuperValu grocery store with her husband, Jim. Between making sandwiches and small talk, "You back workin' the second shift again, Johnny?," she compared the old force with the new.

"The police knew everybody. And they did good things for the kids, like the DARE program.

"The new guys don't know anybody. And we don't know them. But maybe that's good. There'll be no chance for favoritism."

During the five years he's lived in South Lebanon, Bernie Poole has grown accustomed to the village's police force keeping things safe and secure. "I could leave my lawnmower sit out under my carport. I never worried if it was going to be there when I got home from work." Now, he's worried. And upset.

"I hate the new arrangement," he said as he learned against his car. "I have half a mind not to pay my taxes. I'm already paying county taxes for the sheriff's deputies, why should I pay my taxes for the same thing to South Lebanon?"

Poking his finger in the air, Bernie wanted to know: "Will these new guys care about us? With they be real tough? If you rolled through a stop sign, the old guys would say, "Hey! Don't do that again.' Are the new guys going to write you a ticket?"

I shared Bernie's questions with Warren County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Steve Moore. He's in charge of the three-officer team setting up shop in the small concrete-block building that was once the village police station. An inventory of the old department's assests was in progress. Bulletproof vests were stacked in boxes on the floor. Obsolete uniforms hung on doorknobs.

"We'll take orders from the sheriff," said Sgt. Moore. "We're here to serve and protect, patrol the streets and enforce the law."

Shifting in his seat, he smiled and added: "Working in a village is not like patrolling the whole county. There, you may see a person just once. In the village, officers will have to exercise a great deal of discretion. We see the same people every day."

More than likely, they'll be waving. "People here do wave a lot," Sgt. Moore said. "We'll wave back. It's how we sell ourselves to the village."

That'll suit Ruth and Simpson Hamons. Early afternoons find the couple on their front porch. They wave to the sheriff's cars, just as they did when the village police used to pass.

"The old police were friendly," Simpson said. "They always threw up their hand at me.

"As long as the new ones wave back -- and do their job -- we'll get along just fine."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.