Lee sheriff stresses safety -- for citizens, officers

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

LEESBURG -- Lee County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Bo Clark grabs his cell phone and quickly punches in the number for dispatch.

"What is the status of the officer on Upatoi?" Clark asks.

"Communications was not clear."

After working a damage-to-property case at the Flash Foods convenience store on U.S. 19 South, Clark had noted a "10-3" call from one of his fellow officers.

"That means everyone shut up," the sergeant says as he focuses on the radio. "One of our officers is going into a house whose door was open, and he needs the lines of communication clear. I won't call in and let dispatch know I'm back on patrol until they're clear at that house."

Clark hears static and a garbled "10-4" on the radio and is clearly frustrated. He grabs his cell phone and calls dispatch to get the status of the officer checking the residence on Upatoi.

"Frankly, this radio system is a piece of junk," he says. "We've got a guy in a potentially dangerous situation, and I have to use my cell to check on his status. That kills me because it puts our officers in danger."

Such is the daily existence of the 45 officers in the Lee Sheriff's Office. They put their lives on the line for the county's citizens every day, but such issues as an inadequate radio system -- one that technology has left behind -- and high-mileage vehicles add another level of danger to what they do.

"These things are not things that we'd like to have, they're things that are necessary," Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals said last week. "I know that our commissioners are aware of this, and I am sincerely proud of all they do for our department. I also know that we're a lot better off here than some other places in the state.

"But when it comes down to the safety of these men and women who serve in this department -- as well as the safety of our citizens -- that is my No. 1 priority."

Rachals' department, which, in addition to the 45 sworn officers in the Criminal Investigations and Narcotics Investigations divisions, has 95 on staff, operates under a $3.063 million budget. Included under the sheriff's department umbrella are E-911, jailers, kitchen staff at the jail, administrators and sworn officers.

As the fastest-growing county in Southwest Georgia, Lee has seen a dramatic jump in property crimes over the last several years. Rachals said more than 10,000 calls had been logged by his department in just the first four months of 2011, a marked increase from previous years.

"We're getting more and more entering-auto, shoplifting, theft and burglary, suspicious activity and accident calls," Rachals said. "We worked 103 accidents in January alone. I think we're starting to see these types of activities go up just because of the way things are in the community now.

"We've got a growing population, and we've got a terrible economy. That's the kind of combination that leads to an increase in crime."

When Rachals, chief Deputy Lewis Harris and others on his staff took Lee County Commissioners to task for not meeting funding requests during budget hearings in early May, Commission Finance Committee member Bill Williams pointedly told the law enforcement personnel, "We're not the enemy here."

Rachals responded, "Then who is the enemy? Because I'm facing a monster. If I don't have the proper amount of people doing what we're supposed to do, the feds are going to come down hard on me."

In the end, the woes throughout the sheriff's department and others in the county center around money.

"You ask who the enemy is here, and it's money, it's income, it's revenue," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy told Rachals. "We've had to cut money from every department in Lee County because we made a commitment not to increase the millage rate in this economy."

Duffy said Saturday that, even during the current budget crunch, the needs of the sheriff's department and other public safety personnel remain a priority with the commission.

"They've done a great job of doing more with less," he said. "We've just got to keep trying to survive until this economy turns around."

While riding along with Sgt. Bo Clark and Dep. Wayne Baltzell as they patrolled the county last week, an Albany Herald reporter noted a half-dozen occasions when communications attempts in patrol cars were difficult or impossible to complete.

The reporter was unable to hear Baltzell's calls to dispatch on his portable unit even while sitting in the deputy's cruiser not 15 feet away from where he made the calls.

"It often depends on the weather and our location," Baltzell replies when asked about the communications issues. "It's just that this system is outdated now, and it's getting harder and harder to count on it. And communications is one of the most important parts of our job.

"This job is dangerous enough without having to worry about whether our radios are going to work."

Yet the men and women of Lee SO are out there on their beats every day, patrolling the districts and trying to stem the tide of a growing crime rate that mirrors the frustration of a population that has shifted to survival mode. They do it because it's what they were called to do.

"I never grew up thinking I'd one day be in law enforcement," Clark said during his patrol. "But it's a way that I can help people, and that's what I want to do with my life.

"Unfortunately, there are gangs out there whose initiation is to kill a cop, bikers who make a vow to kill an officer in every city they ride through. Sure, Lee County is a nice place to live, but something like that is always in the back of your mind, even here. I'm a Christian; I believe in God. And when I get home after every shift, I thank Him for letting me walk through that door."