The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department has the responsibility to maintain law enforcement throughout the county, particularly in unincorporated areas, or in small towns which can’t afford their own police departments. In the wake of the county’s ongoing money woes, how has Sheriff Mike Hale done his duty? Not surprisingly, it hasn’t been easy.
Chief Deputy Randy Christian, speaking for Hale, answered a few questions about the situation at the sheriff’s department for Weld.
Weld: What has the Sheriff’s department had to change because of the county’s financial situation? How has your reduced budget affected your work?
Christian: The budget cuts of the last three years have greatly affected the strength and personnel of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. In 2008 the Sheriff’s Office was given an operating budget of $57,197,465. The cuts began in the second quarter of 2009 as it became apparent that Jefferson County would lose revenues from an occupational tax that had been struck down by the courts.
By the beginning of the 2012 fiscal year our operating budget had been reduced by 32% to $43 million. With as much as 88% percent of costs going toward salaries there has not been very much room to move. These cuts have resulted in reduced staffing levels, discontinued services and longer work hours for deputy personnel.
W: How has hiring been affected? Did you lose deputies?
C: Five years ago we had 575 sworn personnel. Today we have 428 total sworn personnel, which is a reduction of 147.
W: What happened to the officers you lost?
C: Fifty deputies, fearing for the future of their careers in the uncertain financial climate faced by Jefferson County, chose to leave the Sheriff’s Office permanently and transferred to other law enforcement agencies. People we had hired and trained simply took their training and experience with them to other departments. The investment we made in their careers was lost.
W: What adjustments did you have to make due to the personnel shortage?
C: Due to reduced funding it was necessary to lower staffing levels and place many personnel including deputies on unpaid administrative leave. During the summer of 2010 it became necessary to reduce work weeks to thirty-two hours. This was in effect a 20% pay cut for all personnel. As positions were vacated some of the personnel were brought back to fill them.
The lack of an adequate number of personnel has resulted in the closure of the Jefferson County Jail in Bessemer as we no longer have the staff to safely operate it. Due to reduced numbers of patrol deputies we were forced to abandon the practice of investigating traffic accidents, instead opting to allow this responsibility to fall back on the Alabama State Troopers. The result is that now, when a citizen is involved in a traffic accident, they now must wait for a Trooper to respond. This often takes an hour or more even for the slightest collision.
W: How did the cuts affect other parts of the sheriff’s operations?
C: The cuts required us to complete a manpower analysis of all special units and assignments. It has been necessary to disband some units in order to have a minimum number of deputies to perform routine patrol functions. Deputies previously assigned to these units were re-assigned to patrol duties. This included the Street Crimes Unit.
W: What does Street Crimes do, exactly?
C: The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Street Crimes Unit was started as a group of highly motivated, well trained and dedicated deputies who were tasked with suppressing outbreaks of crime such as robbery, burglary and drug related offenses. They were not assigned to regular patrol duties and were therefore free to seek out and disrupt criminal activity within the county. The ability to target a specific area and suppress the criminal activity there made this unit unique. They were highly successful and quite good at their assignment.
W: What did the unit accomplish?
C: This unit made hundreds of felony and misdemeanor arrests and broke apart burglary and theft rings, disrupted illegal narcotics sales and actively combated robberies. The contributions made by the Street Crimes Unit were something we could all be proud of.
In the last six months of operation the Street Crimes Unit made 677 arrests. Of these, slightly more than two thirds were made in the Centerpoint area. Their success was not only measured in the number of arrests, but also in the change in attitude and mindset of the criminal element they dealt with. It was a difficult decision to disband the unit, but in the face of withering budget cuts, it became a luxury we could no longer afford. It was necessary…to disband the unit and place the deputies back in a regular patrol assignment just to meet a minimum number of personnel.
W: Were there changes in patrol shifts?
C: One solution was to place all deputies on 12-hour work shifts. While this has aided in keeping our daily staffing levels at the minimum acceptable level it has had consequences. Fatigue is now more common among our staff as a normal shift is either 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In addition, deputies who work the night shift must still attend court, obtain warrants and swear to citations during the day.Twelve hours a day in a high stress environment such as corrections or patrol takes a toll and overall morale begins to suffer. With fatigue comes mistakes and making a mistake that costs a deputy their life is a very real concern faced daily by our deputies.
W: How is the jail affected?
C: The jail in general has been greatly affected. Reduced staffing levels forced us to close the facility in Bessemer and consolidate inmates at the Birmingham location. This has resulted in overcrowding, low supply levels and inmate-to-deputy ratios that border on extremely dangerous. In some cases there are four inmates in a cell built to house two. The jail often has 25 deputies working with an inmate population of 1,200 or more. Our Corrections Deputies have risen to the challenge and do an excellent job with the resources at their disposal.
W: How is training affected?
C: We are now faced with filling any vacancies with new personnel who must be trained. New personnel are restricted from performing certain duties until after they have completed both the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement Academy and the field training and evaluation program. They are of small use until we have spent the time and money to provide the necessary training.
There just has been no funding available to send deputies to extra training beyond the State mandated minimums. If funding were available, the reduced staffing levels would make it difficult to be without the personnel while they attend the training. We continue to provide firearms qualification and some in-service training through our training facility.
W: Given all of the hard changes, how well would you assess the job the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is doing?
C: With all of the challenges, I am proud to say the Sheriff’s Office remains dedicated to providing the highest level of law enforcement services to the citizens of Jefferson County and committed to the mission of keeping our neighborhoods and communities safe. Looking back I’m not sure this isn’t our finest hour as a Sheriff’s Office. Through adversity character is always revealed. I have had the good fortune of watching our deputies gird up, fight the good fight, deliver the service and do so while maintaining a great attitude. A can-do attitude. I would not trade our people for anyone anywhere. They take great pride in getting the job done. It’s an honor to be associated with them.
W: Considering that the county’s financial woes have brought your department to this point, what do you see for the future?
C: I do sense the ship is turning for the better. I know our current County Commissioners and Manager are working hard to restore this county to what it should be. We still need assistance from the state legislature. It’s time to bring us out of the abyss we have been mired in. Our taxpayers deserve it and so do our deputy sheriffs.