Pike County coverage issue for candidates

Published 3:00 am Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How many deputies are enough for the Pike County Sheriff’s Department?

That’s one of the issues being debated by incumbent Sheriff Russell Thomas and the Republican challenger Jason Youngblood as the general election nears on Nov. 4.

Thomas, who served as a deputy and as chief deputy before being elected sheriff in 1994, oversees a staff of 18 sworn officers, whose duties include everything from patrol to serving warrants to transporting juveniles to school safety.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The deputies work a series of staggered shifts throughout each 24-hour day, designed to put the officers on duty when most needed – times such as early mornings when school traffic is heaviest at the county schools or during court days, when deputies are needed to serve as court officers and to transport prisoners to and from their court appearances.

“One of the better things we do is the business, school and church safety check,” Thomas said. “We check on those every night, not every one of them, but we have our county sectioned off into two sections, east and west. Those deputies during the night shift will go out and check on those buildings and those churches those business to make sure their secure.”

And after business hours, the deputies work a series of staggered shifts ending at 10 p.m., midnight, and 2 a.m. “The only time we have one deputy on duty is 2 to 6 a.m.,” Thomas said.

But Youngblood isn’t satisfied with that plan.

While the deputies’ coverage only accounts for various areas around the county, the lack of true 24-hour coverage is concerning for Jason Youngblood, running against Thomas on the Republican ticket, along with officer safety.

“My concern is officer safety,” Youngblood said. “Kevin Childs, the deputy on third shift, still works by himself. There is a lack of 24-hour coverage.”

The challenger, who currently works with the Troy Police Department, says the lack of multiple-man, 24-hour coverage leaves both the officers and the county residents unprotected from what could be the “perfect storm.”

“Let’s say you have a domestic situation south of Brundidge where a male or female individual has been badly injured in a domestic violence situation and that one deputy has to go,” Youngblood said. “If it’s a bad situation, until he gets there he may not know if he needs back up. And if he does, the first thing they can do is pick up the phone and call another deputy, wake him up, have him get dressed and respond to a scene. Depending on where that deputy responds from, it could take forever to wake a man up, get him dressed and have him respond to a scene.”

Youngblood says one officer patrolling the county during that time period simply isn’t sufficient. The Pike County Sheriff’s Department is responsible for all county areas outside the Troy Police jurisdiction (which extends 3 miles beyond city limits) and the Brundidge Police jurisdiction (which is inside Brundidge City limits).

“If there’s one deputy on duty, and he’s on a call, what are you going to do?” Youngblood said.

Youngblood’s solution is to hire additional deputies and to consider other scheduling options, such as 12-hour shifts. “I wouldn’t change anything without asking the deputies,” he said. “But it works in other places.”

For Thomas, the issues of staffing and scheduling come down to two concerns: demand and funding. The sheriff said the demand for deputies is highest at other peak times of the day, such as early mornings and nights until about midnight.

“We don’t have a lot of bars in the county or places where people congregate,” the sheriff said. “Most of that happens inside the city limits.”

And, he said, deputies who live in the county are always on standby to respond should they be needed. “People living in that community are on call,” Thomas said. “We’re always thinking ahead of the curve.”

Moreover, the sheriff said he is limited by county funding on the number of staff he can hire. In September, he requested and received approval for an additional deputy’s salary in the fiscal year 2015 budget – at a cost of about $50,000 a year.

“We hired another deputy who was scheduled to go midnights in September, but we were not comfortable (with his experience) to have him out there yet,” Thomas said.

The sheriff’s department will also have the ability to add deputies through attrition. As long-term deputies retire, the department can in some cases split the salary to hire two new, entry-level deputies – if the county commission approves doing so, Thomas said “This will all be dictated by the county and the money that’s available in the county budget. The money has to be there.”