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Sheriff's dept. faces challenges

Sheriff's dept. faces challenges

December 9th, 2010 in News

Stephanie Backus/FULTON SUN photo: Sgt. Clay Chism of the Callaway County Sheriff's Department works on his on-board computer during a shift. Chism has been with the department for 10 years.

As the third largest county in the state, Callaway County is an anomaly. It is filled with sporadic farmland, the most concentrated of which is in the northern part of the county, while the southern half is filled with people.

At 847 square miles, the county is vast in size and with 13 road officers to cover a 24/7 365-day job, the Callaway County Sheriff's Department does all it can, but times can be tough.

"We're so short-staffed, with an excessive call load," said Sgt. Clay Chism, one of the department's three supervising officers. "We get 12,000 calls a year. In a month, each deputy will take between 100 and 120 calls themselves. So the time to go out and look for bad guys like you see on television isn't there.

"We spend a lot of time doing reactive services, running calls and trying to do follow up on those reactive calls."

Those reactive calls are not necessarily easy calls to cover, according to Callaway County Sheriff Dennis Crane.

"People think officers can take a call and be done in five minutes," Crane said. "In a county our size, just getting to the call can take 40 or 45 minutes."

One big call can clean out an entire shift, which generally consists of three road deputies, including the supervising officer.

"It's very common to get backed up two or three calls at a time," Chism said. "Non-emergency calls have to hold for anywhere from an hour to two hours to get a deputy available. It's certainly not great customer service, but we do everything we can to get to the call as soon as possible."

Small staff sizes are a big problem in a department expected to cover 820 miles of county roads, not including the two major highways in the county, and helping Fulton police when the time permits. But it's not the only problem. The sheer size of Callaway County can make responding difficult.

"If you're in Shamrock and have to go to the south end of Holts Summit, an emergency run is approximately 42 minutes," Chism said. "We try our best to stay spaced out as much as we can, but sometimes that plan goes afoul because the calls take you where they take you."

In one day, it is not uncommon for an officer to log more than 200 miles on his vehicle at a time.

"A slick-sleeve deputy that doesn't have any supervisory duties will put 40,000 miles on their cars each year," Chism said. "These are our offices."

A supervisor like Chism will put around 25,000 miles on his vehicle in a year, which makes maintaining the vehicles an important part of Sheriff Crane's budget.

"(It) is a big part of the job," Chism said. "We can't have a car breaking down on the way to a call to help someone. The vehicle I have now has more miles than I've ever had on a patrol car before."

Just a normal day

In any given day, Chism will come to the office with a plan to continue investigating current cases, or patrol certain areas that have seen high-crime traffic.

"Sometimes those plans end quickly," Chism said. "A list is fine, but we have to take the calls we get."

As a supervisor, Chism has to approve deputies' reports, write his own reports and still cover the roads as one of the deputies on duty.

Friday was a normal day for Chism. He was on an eight-hour shift that began with an interview of a named suspect in a child molestation case. As he traveled to the suspect's home, he noted it was unusual to interview a suspect at his home.

"When I called him and told him we needed to talk about what was going on, he agreed but asked that it be at his home," Chism said.

The call was part of a continuing investigation that began with a child reporting inappropriate touching. Once Chism interviewed the child, the rest of the case investigation became his.

He pulled over to write his report in his on-board computer on the ramp to U.S. 54.

"The efficiency of this is just awesome," he said as he worked. "There's so much we can do on the computers. Before, to type a report or do a calls for service, we had to drive all the way back to the office to do that. If we had a five-sentence supplement we needed to type, we had to drive to Fulton to put that into the system. Now, I can pull into the parking lot of a business or along a street in a problem area where visibility is needed and do the reports."

From the suspect's home, Chism traveled to a Callaway County business to follow-up on a crimestoppers tip of employee theft.

When he got back to his car, there was at least one call waiting for him.

"Dispatch doesn't have to give us the calls over the radio now, especially with sensitive information," he said. "They can just tell us a call is pending, and we can pull us a call is pending, and we can pull it off the computer."

From there, Chism took a call from someone reporting an erratic driver on Route HH. The call initially went to the Highway Patrol, but with Chism in the area, he was available to try to intercept the driver.

"One of the nicest things about working in this area is how well the agencies work together," he said. "The Sheriff's Department, Highway Patrol, FPD and the municipalities work great. Even the conservation agents will get in their cars and help on a call if we need them, too."

It's a two-way give for the agencies.

"If the Fulton Police Department is dispatched for a bank alarm, if I'm three blocks away, we have the relationship where I don't have to call a supervisor to see if they want me to go help with the call, I just go. It's a given," Chism said.

And so the day goes for Chism. On the way to serve a subpoena for records at Kingdom Telephone, a drive that normally would take 15 minutes, took 90, with various calls between Fulton and Auxvasse.

Two calls back to the office for people in the lobby wanting to make complaints racked up several miles for Chism on what he described as a normal day.

"During the day shift, it's not uncommon for us to be called back to the office several times for lobby calls," Chism said. "The night shift is different. It's a lot of resolution or arrest, leaving the day shift to take care of the rest of the investigating."

On this particular "normal" day, Chism put more than 200 miles on his vehicle and spent six hours investigating various incidents before heading back to the office.

At one point, there were three calls backed up with just one deputy on the road - Chism. A detective took one call, and a night shift employee reported early to take the other.

"When you have one deputy out because he's in court and another is investigating a case, it's tough," Crane said. "Sometimes, if we're at a burglary and a priority call comes in, we have to tell the person to hang tight and we will be back as soon as we're done with the bigger call."

When a major crime occurs, like the three homicides in October, Crane does not hesitate to activate the major crimes squad, comprised of law enforcement agencies around Mid-Missouri.

Once an officer can head back to the office, work does not stop.

"I have about four hours of paperwork to get done in an hour," Chism said. "A deputy leaving on time is a miracle."

'How do you pay for that?'

Sheriff Crane said in a perfect world, he would have five deputies on each shift.

"Each officer would cover about 200 miles," Crane said. "We would zone them and have a supervisor on duty that covers each of them and backs and supports them. That's five per shift 24 hours a day. When you figure that out, it's 15 officers a day, at 365 days a year.

"If you figure the average person works 280 hours, then you have to factor in vacation, sick time, training or court that might take a deputy away. We have to address the system and figure out how to cover the county and give the people the coverage they expect, but I just don't know how we're going to do that.

"How do you pay for that?"

Crane believes it's a dilemma that he can't solve by himself, and the commission can't solve by itself, but one the community will have to tackle.

"Hindsight is always 20/20. I wish there had been a tax that was set up primarily for law enforcement," Crane said. "But right now is not the time. People are losing their jobs still. I'm thankful just to have my job, and I know the officers are thankful for their jobs. Right now is just not the right time for a law enforcement tax."

But, Crane noted, when the economy turns around, it's an idea he would like to see addressed with the county commission.

Crane's budget sits at just more than $2 million. A figure that may seem lofty to some, half of it is gone almost immediately to cover expenses at the jail.

"Every person arrested in Callaway County by any agency becomes the responsibility of the sheriff because they are locked up in my jail," he said. "I have 20 employees in just the jail. There are more employees working in the jail than working the roads."

But the jail isn't the only responsibility that falls on the sheriff outside of road patrol.

"People don't understand the complexity of the sheriff's department," he said. "They see the arresting part of our job, but we're obligated by state statute to do civil process for all the agencies in our area. There are about 300 statutes that apply directly to the sheriff. That's a lot of statutes, so we figure out how to balance all that."

For now, Crane does what he can to continue covering a large county with a small staff.

"It's an educational process. We may not be able to address all the problems now, but let's put them on the table," he said. "Let's not just sweep them under the rug and think they'll go away."

(Editor's note: Observations were made during a ride-along with Sgt. Chism.)