Sunday, March 11, 2001

Police, sheriff may join forces for good


Merger mulled in Boone County

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        BURLINGTON — When Boone County law enforcement officials received reports of a body dumped into the Ohio River, a team of detectives from county police and the sheriff's office was called to investigate.

        Now a Petersburg man is behind bars, charged in connection with a homicide. Law enforcement officials are saying the collaboration of the sheriff's and police departments is a sign of things to come.

Whalen
Whalen
        The county Criminal Investigations unit — which includes police and sheriff's deputies — has been working together since last June to solve the county's most violent crimes.

        County Police Chief Jim Whalen points to their successes — including exposing of a multicounty home burglary ring — as evidence that a merger of the sheriff's department and county police could work.

        A merger of the county's two law enforcement agencies came one step closer last month after a citizens committee appointed by the Boone County Fiscal Court recommended combining the departments by Jan. 1.

        Fiscal court, which will decide whether to merge the two departments, is expected to discuss the issue at its March 20 meeting. A date for a vote has not been set.

        County police would be folded into the sheriff's office under thecommittee's proposal.

        The new department would nearly triple the sheriff's ranks and nearly double its coffers.

[photo] Detectives Tim Carnahan (left) and Steve Hill of Boone County Criminal Investigations shine a fluorescent light on a washcloth from a crime scene. The light allows them to see body fluids.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        The sheriff would inherit the police department's 62 sworn officers and $3.4 million budget.

        Merger supporters — including the sheriff and some county commissioners — say overlap would be eliminated.

        However, the citizens committee report said a single agency would not result in significant savings in the short term.

        The report said growth could make even long-range savings uncertain.

Assessing strengths
        “In some ways, this is an opportunity to take the best of both agencies and create a better agency,” said Chief Whalen.

        “We have looked at both sides and identified what each does best.”

        Sheriffs in Kentucky are required to perform duties including protecting the courts and serving judicial papers. The Boone County Sheriff's department has taken a more active role in county law enforcement, responding to 25 percent of the calls made to the Boone County emergency dispatch center.

        After years of talks, deputies and officers say they want the issue resolved.

        Some say neither department can move forward until its fate is known.

BY THE NUMBERS
   Boone County Police
   
Budget: $3.4 million for the 2001 fiscal year.
   Sworn officers: 62.
   Calls for service: An estimated 69,000, or 75 percent of the calls made to the Boone County emergency dispatch center.

   Boone County Sheriff
   
Budget: $3.9 million for the 2001 calendar year.
   Deputies: 30 full-time; nine school resource officers, 10 part-time employees.
   Calls for service: Estimated 23,000, or 25 percent of the calls made to the Boone County emergency dispatch center, not including calls made directly to the sheriff's office.
   Sources: Boone County Police and Boone County Sheriff.

        Sheriff Mike Helmig wants the merger to take place by July 1.

        “It is the right thing to do for the people,” he said. “Our two departments have worked closely together in the last two years, but collaboration can only take you so far.”

        A team from both departments already is drawing up a plan.

        Sheriff Helmig — who started at the sheriff's department in 1982 at the age of 21 — would lead the combined organization. Chief Whalen, a longtime friend who taught Sheriff Helmig how to shoot, is slated to be one of two deputies.

Helmig
Helmig
        Sheriff Helmig said there are many things a combined agency could do better:

        • Officers could be assigned to patrol smaller areas.

        • A full-time traffic unit to patrol the three interstates in the county — I-71, I-75 and I-275 — could be formed.

        • The possible addition of a full-time crime scene technician, a computer crimes investigator or a fugitive investigations unit to track delinquent child-support payments.

        One of the biggest hurdles to a merger is job security.

        The Boone County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 46, has gone from opposing a merger to having no official stance, said lodge president Sgt. Pete Schierloh. Most of the officers in the lodge are Boone County policemen.

        Sgt. Schierloh, a 12-year veteran of the county police force, said a main concern is the police merit system, which protects an officer from being fired for arbitrary reasons.

        Without a merit system, offi cers in a merged department would become at-will employees of the elected sheriff.

        The validity of the sheriff's merit system in the state is being challenged in court.

        The Florence Fraternal Order of Police lodge has endorsed the planned merger.

        Sgt. Schierloh said the majority of sheriff's deputies who are FOP members belong to the Florence lodge.

        Chief Whalen is also concerned about the county's chief law enforcement officer becoming an elected official.

        Police chief candidates undergo an extensive background check and are hired by elected officials. The chief answers to the judge-executive and county commissioners.

        The sheriff, however, is a constitutionally elected officer with limited accountability.

        He does not need a law enforcement background and is accountable to voters in elections every four years.

        “I don't foresee any problem under Mike Helmig as sheriff,” Chief Whalen said.

        “I've known him for years. There isn't a better civil servant. But what about the next sheriff?”

       



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