Friday, March 2, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XCVII): An interview with the Sheriff

Lots of issues of the Newton County Times have been piling up in recent weeks, while I have been traveling and teaching. The February 22, 2012 issue of the paper features a lengthy interview with Newton County Sheriff Keith Slape, with the headline focusing on his oversight of the construction of the new jail. But the interview covers a lot more territory than the circuitous path leading to the actual construction of the jail. In particular, Slape provides details of the budgetary and other challenges his department has faced in the past year.

Slape reports that he had to lay off a deputy a year ago and that his office is still badly underfunded, in part because of budget cuts made by the Quorum Court and in part because the county has not received Title Three funding that he "typically uses to employ two office staff members. " He notes that 14 other counties in the state are also waiting for their appropriations because of "bureaucratic problems." Describing the consequences of the funding cuts, the paper quotes Slape:
I had to borrow and beg from other offices. Paper for writing reports was a significant need. We made use everything that was purchased was an absolute necessity. We got down to buying toilet paper a roll at a time. Some things we did do without.
The county recently conducted an auction of surplus materials and unclaimed property, and the proceeds raised are being used to sustain the sheriff's office until the federal funds arrive. The 2012 Sheriff's Office budget is $265,000, up from $205,000 in 2011, when the Quorum Court had severely slashed it. The additional $60,000 for 2012, Slape reports, "is due in large part to the cooperation of other county officials who worked with him to provide a budget which he feels is adequate."

The Sheriff's office has also been able to save money by leasing high-mileage, older patrol vehicles from the Sheriff's office of a larger county. One of those vehicles had 70,000 miles on it, which is a low-mileage vehicle for Newton County. Slape also used an "Adopt-A-Car program in which local businesses and individuals made monetary contributions to stripe, add light bars and otherwise equip the patrol cars that were received stripped down."

The sheriff reported that his office's "command unit" saw heavy use last year. That unit is a converted FEMA trailer outfitted with radio and computer equipment. It is placed at the scene of special operations, searches, and rescues.

Regarding the several years that the county has been without a jail and paying to house prisoners in the jails of neighboring counties, Slape commented, "The worst thing is I have a pile of warrants here. Only the bad ones can go to jail right now." He says he can't execute misdemeanor warrants without a county jail in which to put people, and that people in the county know this and so are not being deterred from committing these lesser crimes.

Slape noted that those who have gone to prison in recent years have most often been guilty of drug offenses. "Those stepped up actions along with new laws regarding possession of substances and materials used to manufacture methamphetamine have had a positive effect in reducing the noxious drug's availability." But now prescription drugs are filling the vacuum, according to Slape, who said that the demand for prescription drugs is so great that even some elderly citizens are selling theirs to subsidize their meager incomes.

Slape disclosed that the international hacking group, Anonymous, had successfully gained access to the Sheriff's Office computer system. The Sheriff's Office learned of this breach from the FBI, and the office has now added enhanced security to its systems to prevent future incidents.

In other news, all of the county's officials have announced that they are seeking re-election, including Sheriff Keith Slape, who is seeking his fourth two-year term. The longest serving official is County Assessor Sheila McCutcheon, who is seeking her ninth term. Except for the county sheriff and the county collector who run as Independents, all of the current officials are Republicans.

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