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Town of Halifax considers reducing cop force

Talks of scaling back the Town of Halifax’s police force got heated Wednesday morning during Halifax Town Council’s special called meeting held in Town Hall.

Restructuring the Halifax Police Department following the departure of former Police Chief David Martin was the topic of discussion.

Martin, who now serves as administrative captain with the Halifax County Sheriff’s Department, resigned from the town’s police department at the end of the year.

Kicking off discussion, Councilman Holt Evans suggested council should first decide how many officers they wish to have in the town’s police department.

The town currently has three police officers on its roster, and Evans maintained the town “could get by” with three officers permanently.

Councilman Phil Hammond questioned whether the town needed to promote someone to police chief to be in charge of scheduling officers’ work hours and other administrative duties.

Also considered was hiring someone part time to handle administrative duties in order to free up the three officers “to work the streets.”

Town Manager Carl Espy agreed someone could be hired to assist with administrative work “so it can free up the roster” for more police coverage.

Councilman Evans agreed.

“I think we need to look at the areas we specifically need coverage,” Evans said.

Prior to the meeting Councilman Bill Confroy had developed a proposed work schedule for town police officers.

He pointed out a few times on the schedule where the town would not have coverage but suggested looking to other law enforcement agencies to provide police coverage during those blank spots.

“Hopefully this is something that we’d be able to coordinate with the sheriff’s office and the state police,” Confroy said, both located in the town limits.

“That’s a period of time where there is a lot of activity of other law enforcement agencies in the town. We really can’t afford to cover 24 hours a day,” he added.

Confroy said some of the merchants and residents have expressed concerns with the lack of coverage.

“One of the things we’ve learned from individuals when we lowered the number of police officers is the merchants were concerned about having coverage in the town, and also residents wanted the police officers riding through their communities. We also understood that in the evening at night, folks felt more secure when they had coverage at night, so we’re picking on that with Sheriff Fred Clark, and he’s proposing they go to an eight-hour shift as well,” Confroy said.

Referring to his proposed police schedule, Confroy described it “as very flexible.”

“How are holidays and vacations handled now? Do they get comp time for that? Administrative and clerical duties, I think that those are things that can be assigned to someone else so the officers we do have are out on the beat and driving through neighborhoods, on the street walking up and down talking to merchants, and visible helping with traffic on court days,” Confroy added.

He also said the town needs to establish a certain amount of personal days each officer is allowed to have.

He suggested providing a schedule for the dispatcher so they would know when the town is without coverage so calls received during that time can be sent to the sheriff’s department.

“We do pay county taxes, and we’re part of Halifax County, and I think we’re entitled to some coverage here as far as the sheriff’s office is concerned. Not that we don’t get any now, but it hasn’t been specifically designated,” he continued.

Confroy told council it’s unnecessary to have a police chief.

Previously, town managers have assumed the responsibility, he said noting that is something the town manager and his staff could work out.

When Hammond questioned if Confroy was delegating Carl Espy and his staff to be responsible for the weekly police schedule, Confroy responded he thought officers could reach a consensus on how they would like to manage their own schedules.

Hammond disagreed saying that the police force needed a leader to provide direction.

Confroy pointed out only one person is on duty at a time, and that person for all practical purposes is considered police chief.

Hammond then questioned police getting compensatory time.

Espy explained the town had offered “comp time” to police to fill in gaps of coverage rather than pay overtime due to budget restraints at one point in time.

After further discussion the question of who was to lead the police department resurfaced.

Mayor Moore said somebody is definitely needed to handle the schedule, the question remains whether it will be an office manager or the three police officers.

Moore then suggested time sheets be turned in at the end of the weekend instead of the end of the pay period.

Discussion heated up again when Councilman Thomas Brown said he was “tired of beating the same horse over and over again talking about the comp time,” and urged council to decide if they want to put a new scheduling policy on the list to vote on.

“I just want to move on and get through this so we can go to other things we need to be taking care of, and by rehashing the same old stuff, we’re not doing that,” Brown said.

“We’re not having a special meeting just to talk about a schedule,” responded Moore. We want to decide how our police department wants to serve our town and how we want them to serve our town.”

Brown said the point he was trying to make was just to get on with making those decisions and stop talking about what happened last year.

“You may not want talk about it, but some of us may want to talk about it,” Confroy replied.

Councilman Jack Dunavant diffused the situation by changing the subject.

“Some people that I represent sincerely question if we need a police department at all, not saying we don’t need police protection. I know that we do. I question whether we wouldn’t be better served by relying on the sheriff’s department to cover this town. They’re better trained, they’ve got equipment. We pay taxes just like everybody else.”

He continued, “The police very seldom prevent a crime, of course their presence is a deterrent, that’s no question, but mostly they investigate crimes that have already happened.”

Dunavant told council it wasn’t something he wanted to make a decision on then.

Things got heated once again when Dunavant said the town buys junk cars from the sheriff’s office three at a time and questioned cost of maintenance for those vehicles.

He said the way they town is handling things aren’t in the best interest of the taxpayers.

But Espy countered Dunavant’s accusations were “inaccurate,” and he attempted to correct Dunavant, and Dunavant told him “don’t interrupt me.”

Dunavant later apologized for snapping at Espy.

“I would like to apologize to Carl for getting a little testy, but it just seems that every time we bring up something that questions the town, Carl gets real defensive,” Dunavant said.

Bringing the discussion back to whether or not the town needs a police force, Moore said it does.

“I do feel like we need a police department in our town and do feel we need to give our citizens the best possible protection we can. We have to figure out how to do that,” Moore said.

Then Dunavant brought up a concern about officers driving cars to and from their homes to work.

“One of the policies I had a problem with in the past is (police) driving vehicles home when people live 20-25 miles away from the town. That to me is not doing the town any service, and that’s a perk that the town should not offer,” he said.

Dunavant suggested council and the committee consider enacting a policy.

Several citizens attended the Wednesday morning meeting.

When the opportunity arose for public comment, Halifax business owner Cheryl Watts said she values having a police department in the town.

“I do think it’s valuable having a town police force. When I was a resident in town years and years ago, I lived in the apartment on Oak Lane and lost my keys one time, but I didn’t replace them because I never locked my doors anyway. It was just a safe atmosphere. But as a business owner here, if I’m going to be on vacation for a week, its comforting to know that I can let them know. Whether it’s three people on the force or four people on the force, they would know who would be out of place,” Watts said.

She also suggested the town needed to have someone in charge of supervising the police department, adding that was not a job for the town manager and his staff who “do enough already.

“I do think with a force of three, you do need a supervising officer, but I do think that you need one person that could be dealing with issues that Carl and Denise may not need to deal with,” Watts said.

She suggested David Irby should be offered the position of police chief and urged council to be more appreciative of the dedication of Espy and his staff.

“I don’t how much Carl makes, but the town can’t afford him,” Watts said.

Marsha Hite, president of the Halifax Village Association, agreed.

“I would like to see us maintain a police department if there’s any way. I have people ask me what does the Halifax Police Department do. Well, they give me some piece of mind,” Hite said.

Also council discussed uranium mining budgetary considerations Wednesday morning.

Confroy suggested the town allocate money for traveling and meeting with legislators and discussed working collectively with the town of South Boston and the county to finance the fight against uranium mining in the state.

“I just think if we could marshal all our resources together, we’d get a bigger bang for our buck,” Confroy said. “If we do it each individually, it’s a little redundant.”

The mayor suggested Espy contact County Administrator George Nester and South Boston Town Manager Ted Daniel to discuss how they can work together.

They discussed attending the Virginia Municipal League meeting on Feb. 9 where uranium mining is slated for discussion. So far Dunavant, Confroy, Evans and Hammond said they plan to attend.

No action was taken on any of the issues discussed Wednesday, and council is expected to further discuss restructuring the police department and uranium mining at the their Feb. 8 work session before deciding what will be voted on at their Feb.14 meeting.