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Halifax council member attacks reports on police issue

About a dozen Halifax residents and the three Halifax Police Officers attended the Halifax Town Council work session Wednesday night in town hall to voice concerns about the department’s future restructuring.

The police department has been the topic of debate since the departure of former Police Chief David Martin, who now serves as administrative captain in the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office.

Town Councilman Bill Confroy wasted no time accusing The Gazette-Virginian of misrepresenting council’s intentions referring to recent stories and an editorial that reported restructuring plans councilmen had discussed at previous work sessions and meetings.

“There has been a lot of misinformation in the newspaper,” Confroy said, adding this council has never said we’re not going to have a police department.”

Directing his comments directly at GV reporter Danielle Vaughn, an irate Confroy said, “So Danielle, I want you to get that straight now. OK. We never said that. There was an extensive article in The Gazette-Virginian about that, but it was never said. I mean we were deliberating what we’re going to do,” he added.

Although Vaughn was not given an opportunity to respond to accusations leveled by Confroy, the newspaper stands behinds its
reports of proceedings at the meeting and has a recording of the entire special call meeting held Jan. 18.

In no story or editorial has it been stated council as a whole wanted to eliminate the police department, only that one councilman had suggested in a television news broadcast that the Halifax Police Department was “redundant.”

Confroy proceeded to read a letter to council members he had written to Former Town Manager Bob Lewis who had expressed his concerns about council’s intent to restructure the police department.

In the letter, Confroy assured Lewis the town was trying to work together to find a way to give the citizens “a town police department they could be proud of.”

He then questioned whether the town police provided 24-hour coverage seven days a week during the period of Nov. 16 to Feb. 7.

“At what time did we have 24-hour coverage?” he asked.

According to police officers comments made at a staff meeting on Jan. 24, between 2002 and 2011 the town operated with a five full-time officer roster providing 24/7 coverage to afford response to calls in under five minutes on average.

Gaps in coverage occurred intermittently due to personnel turnover and vacancies, he said.

A small part-time roster was used to cover gaps due to sickness, vacation or position vacancies.

The current 2011-12 budget reduced the roster from five to four officers and the part time/overtime “contingency.”

Fewer than four full time officers will further limit effectiveness of the department, according to police staff.

Confroy suggested Wednesday evening the town should go to the county sheriff’s office for assistance, adding, “The sheriff’s department is going to head the ship.”

He said Fred Clark was going to “departmentalize” the county so law enforcement officers will be committed to the neighborhoods in which they’re going to be working.

Confroy blamed finances as the hindrance to progress in the Halifax Police Department.

“We don’t have the resources to do what we want to do or what we would like to do, and we already spent about 28 percent or 30 percent of what our current budget is,” Confroy said.

He said his police officer schedule proposed at the special called meeting would increase coverage to 16 hours on the weekdays and 24 hours on the weekends.

However, Confroy referred to the Jan. 24 meeting held between Mayor Dick Moore, Councilman Town Brown and police staff to get their input, and he said police officers said the proposed schedule couldn’t be done.

“Can’t is something I don’t understand. I mean there are things that will be done. It depends on if people will do it,” Confroy said.

He suggested the issue needed a lot more study.

Town Manager Espy pointed out Confroy’s proposed schedule would have officers on duty from 1 to 9 p.m.

This is the kind of coverage Confroy said he and council would like and hopefully “the officers could accommodate that.”

He recommended council not take any action at this time.

“I’d like to see us continue what were doing right now, until such time we can collectively make a decsion. We need to make sure we are getting the coverage that we had,” Confroy said.

He further stated that there had been some debate whether or not they were going to have a police chief or a police sergeant.

State code requires that a jurisdiction have one or the other to lead the police department.

Halifax Council voted several years back to have a police chief.

“Sometime in the past the town council elected to have a police chief. That’s all well and good. We can continue to do that if that’s a unanimous decision that council wants to make,” he added.

“We’re not about to jeopardize in any way the safety of the people in this community. What we’re after is to try to enhance it with the resources that we have, and I want to think the people of the town for their input, the citizens in the community and the Halifax Business Association for their resolution in support of the police force.

“That’s welcomed,” Confroy said referring to a resolution signed by 31 merchants and presented by the Halifax Village Business Association.

The main job of the Halifax Police department is to be a deterrent, according to Confroy who commended the force on doing that.

Confroy concluded his 35 minute address to council saying, “I take offense personally to the fact of being attacked saying  we were not interested in protecting and serving this community. I think it does a real disservice to this council and it members who are dedicated. I think it does a disservice to our law enforcement. I know everybody has an opinion on what they think should get done, but I think before they view that opinion they need to find out exactly what the particulars are, what the problems are and how we can resolve it.”

However Mayor Moore said he could not say “that somewhere  in our meetings that everything that was in the newspaper was probably not said at one time or another, maybe  not the way we meant it to show up in the newspaper.

“The thing that really has bothered me as an individual, and I’ve lost a lot of sleep over this is the fact that all I’ve heard for about two weeks or more is whether we are going to do away with the police station.”

He referred to a television interview he did recently with a Roanoke TV station, saying, “Nowhere in that entire interview did you hear your mayor say that we were gonna do away with the police department.”

“The last question he asked me was can you guarrantee me there is gonig to be a police department, and my answer was, and it did appear on WDBJ7 that nobody can guarantee anything 100 percent, but I can guarantee you 99.9 percent we will have a good police department and will protect and take care of our town.”

The mayor said since the council’s last meeting, he has found out the town is required by law to have a police chief or a sergeant.

“The good thing about all of this is it has made our council and our community get out and study and look into and find out what can and can’t be done. I think I’m speaking for every councilman here, and I’m speaking for myself when I say we want to have a good police department that will take care of our town, take care of the citizens and operate as we have in the past,” Mayor Moore said.

He referred to a survey from a magazine that stated other towns and counties have had to make cuts in the past five years.

“Neither one of you in this room, can say we’ve cut the budget at all. The budget remains the same today in the police department as it did the day that David Martin  took his promotion and took a better job and went  with the sheriff’s department.”

Mayor Moore concluded his address explaining council had full intentions of having a police department.

Councilman Jack Dunvant attempted to clear up some of the confusion at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“I think probably the issue of not having a police department came up because I mentioned it because I have had some town’s people question whether we need a police department. Not all towns have police departments,” Dunavant said.

He further explained the town is not required to have a police department because they pay taxes to the county to be protected by the sheriff’s department.

Dunavant said he would not advocate getting rid of the department unless it was necessary, and promised he would vote for what his constituents wanted.

Council then opened the floor for public comment.

Carol Throcktmorton of The Pack House said she felt the town needed at least four officers in its police department if not the original five, adding state police and sherrif’s deputies are already “pushed to their limits.”

Tracy Martin, a Halifax Attorney and wife of former Halifax Police Chief David Martin expressed her concerns to council.

“Although we haven’t heard from the majority of council members, I hope that there is a majority who agrees the police department needs to stay a strong force in the town. A police department is one the most important services people pay for when they pay taxes,” Martin said.

“This time last year we were hearing the same things and that concerns me… budget constraints and budget cuts, we’re in a pinch. You’re not in a pinch. You have a $99,000 surplus at this point. You said it today. This is a question of priorities -- where do you want to spend your money, not whether you can spend it,” Martin continued.

She also suggested council do more crime studies before decreasing the size of the police department, adding it is impossible for three people to provide 16 hours a day of coverage.

She told council not to micromanage the police department and leave the police work to the officers.

“Let them handle the schedules because they know the needs based on their experience,” Martin said.

Marsha Hite, president of the Halifax Businesses Association, referred to the resolution containing 31 signatures that had been presented earlier to council, saying it is the association’s attempt to keep the town from cutting the police department.

“I feel like maybe we have stepped on some toes with our resolution. That was never our intention. Our intention is to work together with all of you for the betterment of this town. We support the police force,” Hite said.

Council set a meeting for Feb. 15 from 9 a.m. to noon in town hall to further discuss what actions will be taken on filling the chief’s position.