Officials consider arming code officers

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- It's not that Lee County Code Enforcement officer Jim Wright feels he has to make a statement by strapping a weapon to his side while he's out doing the county's business.

"I've been a POST-certified law enforcement officer since 1995, and there's never been an issue about me being heavy-handed or quick to use force," Wright said Wednesday. "But the issue of me carrying a gun while I'm on duty is about safety.

"Since I've been in the Code Enforcement office, I've bumped into several things that are bigger than code enforcement. I've walked up on a lot of people who were involved in illegal activities who were armed when I wasn't. I simply want to be able to protect myself."

Lee County officials are contemplating a resolution that would allow Wright, whose tenure as the county's lone Code Enforcement officer is scheduled to end this year with the addition of another budgeted officer, to serve as head of a county marshal's office. That would allow Wright and subsequent Peace Officer Standard and Training-certified code enforcers in the county to carry weapons while on duty.

"That's a topic that's been discussed off and on since I've been here," County Administrator Tony Massey said. "There's interest in putting it on the agenda for next month's (County Commission) work session to discuss. We'll surely get the county attorney (Jimmy Skipper) to research it to make sure we're on solid ground.

"It's unfortunate in our community that it's come to this, but that's part of the reality of the world we live in."

After serving five years as a U.S. Army flight medic, Wright worked as a firefighter/security officer at Southwest Georgia Regional Airport in Albany. He was also chief of the Smithville Police Department and worked with both the Terrell and Lee county sheriff's departments before becoming Lee's lone Code Enforcement officer five years ago.

He's gotten the blessing of the Lee Magistrate and Probate court judges and conditional approval from Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals.

"I have a letter from Sheriff Rachals saying (arming county code officers) is a good idea," Wright said. "But there are liability issues."

Rachals is on vacation this week, but LSO Chief Deputy Lewis Harris said the department had to draw the line at having an officer serving under its jurisdiction without oversight responsibility.

"This has nothing to do with Jim or what he does," Harris said. "But the sheriff can't be liable for a position that he has no authority over. We didn't see that as a viable option."

County Commission Chairman Ed Duffy, who was riding with Wright on a recent code call when Wright was put in an "uncomfortable position" by the circumstances of the call, said he's in favor of arming code officers as a means of protection.

"The Lee County Board of Commissioners believes that it's prudent that its code officers should be allowed to carry a firearm," Duffy said.

"In order to accomplish this, the board is going to consider a resolution to establish a Lee County Marshal's Office.

"I have personally felt for a long time that (Wright) and any other POST-certified officer in the county should be allowed to carry a firearm, so long as they maintain certification. I've polled the entire board, and they are in full agreement. We feel it will allow our Code Enforcement officers to better serve the county."

Bob Alexander, who as director of the county's Planning and Engineering department, is Wright's direct supervisor, said he is "comfortable" with county code officers being armed.

"Jim makes calls into a number of isolated areas," Alexander said.

"That can be an issue when you're working by yourself. Our code officers have been instructed to call the sheriff's department if they're going into a situation that might be dangerous, but you can't always know what kind of situation you're going into.

"I also think it would enhance the possibility of bringing on a more qualified code officer this year if that person is POST-certified and understands he or she will be allowed to carry a weapon as an added precaution."

Wright, meanwhile, said if he's allowed to carry a weapon he doesn't expect to intrude on duties now carried out by the sheriff's department.

"I'm not interested in interfering with other (law enforcement) agencies or duplicating the services that they provide," he said. "I've never had to fire my gun at anybody in my career, and quite honestly I hope if I'm allowed to carry one I only pull it out to clean it.

"But this is a safety issue. And I would feel better about doing my job if I knew I had that level of protection."