Bickel implores council to hire more officers

A man shoots a gun into the air and threatens to turn the weapon on his family. It's the middle of the night, and the shooting is taking place in a rural home in southern Huntington County.

A lone police officer responds.

A victim is tied up, bound and gagged in a strong-arm robbery in Roanoke.

Again, a solitary police officer responds.

Both incidents could have been deadly, and both happened over the past few weeks in Huntington County, Sheriff Terry Stoffel says. And the fact that one police officer was sent into each situation is not out of the ordinary.

"You've got a guy with a gun and you send one officer," Huntington County Councilman Shane Bickel said, making an impassioned plea to his fellow council members during their Oct. 22 meeting to find the money to beef up the Huntington County Sheriff's Department.

"Time and time again we send one officer to dangerous calls. And they're not just dangerous; they can't be handled by one person."

Bickel, who spends his nights working as a Huntington police officer, knows first-hand the problems faced by Stoffel and his 13-man police force. A recent change in Indiana State Police policy took away the back-up from troopers that county deputies counted on in the middle of the night. City police officers help out when they can, Bickel said, but too often the county deputies are left to face potentially explosive situations on their own.

Bickel first brought up the subject of hiring more county deputies during the council's budget hearings in August; during the most recent meeting, Stoffel presented a proposal to hire three more deputies - at a total annual cost, including salaries and benefits, of $166,269.

"All this is the cost of business," Bickel told the council. "We have the money."

It's not just the officers he wants to protect, Bickel says. Huntington County residents also need the protection.

"It's our job, our obligation, to give them what they need and I don't think we're doing that," Bickel said. "If we do this wrong, somebody's going to get hurt or killed."

Of the 13 deputies, Stoffel said, only 10 are on the road. Trying to provide 24/7 coverage while factoring in sick days, vacations and emergencies, he says, leaves the department "kind of short-handed a lot of times."
And while reserve deputies - volunteers who are not fully-trained officers - are a "valuable asset," he said, they're not always available on short notice.

While the department's manpower has remained unchanged over the past decade, Stoffel said, its responsibilities have not. The volume of calls has increased 240 percent over that period, and the time it takes to handle those calls has also increased. A deputy who takes a mentally disturbed person into custody must stay with that person at a hospital or mental health facility during assessment; meth labs require a lengthier investigation than a marijuana arrest; required paperwork has increased.

More deputies could result in additional inmates in the county's already-overcrowded jail, Stoffel admitted, but he says that's no reason to let crime go unpunished.

"I don't think we should turn a blind eye just because we don't have room for them," Stoffel said. "There are some people out there that really need to be in there."
The population of the city of Huntington is roughly equal to the population of the rest of the county, Bickel pointed out.

"They have 10 people on the road, and we have 30," he said. "They do a marvelous job, but at some point it's going to break. It's going to blow up in our face."
Council members will spend the next month studying the report submitted by Stoffel, who plans to return in November to formally request the hiring of three additional deputies.

In other business:

- County Clerk Kittie Keiffer asked for, and received, permission to turn a part-time position in her office into a full-time job in order to process an uptick in traffic tickets and other infractions coming in to the Huntington Superior Court.

In the past, the Superior Court has handled about 1,775 traffic tickets a year, Keiffer told the council. An additional 3,234 tickets previously sent to the Roanoke Town Court will now also be handled by the Superior Court, she said, the result of a ruling earlier this month by County Prosecutor Amy Richison.

Richison explained that her decision was based on a new state ruling requiring counties to have a policy in place designating the court where cases are to be filed. In addition, she said, the fines assessed by the Superior Court and the Roanoke Town Court were vastly different - with fines in the Roanoke court coming in at a minimum of $50 more than those in Superior Court.

The officer issuing the ticket had the option of designating in which court the fine would be paid, she said.

"There was no rhyme or reason why they were filed in Roanoke," she said.

The additional help in the clerk's office won't require any county funds, Keiffer said. The salary will be paid through the revenue - $18.90 per ticket - the county will receive for the additional workload.

- After some initial hesitation, the council agreed to place $649,000 in CEDIT money to be placed in a discretionary fund used by the county commissioners for economic development.

Commissioners President Tom Wall explained that the money is used to develop infrastructure and provide other incentives to entice companies to locate or stay in Huntington County. The money must be readily available, he said, because businesses looking to locate in the county won't wait 30 days for the council to meet and appropriate the money for the incentives.

Mark Wickersham, director of Huntington County United Economic Development, said he and the commissioners are working with a half-dozen businesses considering Huntington County. One, he said, has the potential of bringing a $12.5 million investment and creating 450 new jobs - but Huntington County is competing with two other communities to land the business and may need to act quickly to provide incentives.