‘You do not seem to get it’

Sheriff rips Jefferson about police issues

By ANDREW MCGINN

a.mcginn@beeherald.com

The imminent loss of another officer from the Jefferson Police Department will leave a 12-hour shift unmanned, Chief Mark Clouse told the city of Jefferson’s code/law enforcement committee Tuesday.

Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams teed off on the Jefferson city administrator and city council for allowing the police department’s retention issue to deteriorate to the point that 24/7 coverage may be compromised.

Reading from a prepared statement to city leaders on the committee — City Administrator Mike Palmer, Mayor Matt Gordon and Councilman Pat Zmolek — Williams spelled out what the loss of another officer will mean.

“You are losing another officer in the next few days or short weeks,” Williams said. “This means, as you do not seem to get it, that the sheriff’s office will be covering shifts for you.”

Williams said the city of Jefferson has yet to discuss with his office what type of coverage it will want — full coverage or emergency-only response — but as County Supervisor John Muir put it, “I hope we can agree on a number before we start sending bills to the city.”

County Attorney Thomas Laehn said a 28E agreement between the city of Jefferson and Greene County will be needed, but should be premised on a “good faith understanding that the city is serious about rebuilding its police department.”

Williams warned that “any agreement will be costly for the citizens of Jefferson.”

Zmolek, who joined the council in March, expressed city support for the department.

“We definitely want to retain the Jefferson police force,” he said.

It was the consensus Tuesday that Clouse should once again begin the hiring process for new officers — and that the department’s current, eight-person structure should remain in place.

“No, you’re not hiring a social worker,” Zmolek said, referring to a suggestion made at a recent council meeting by Councilman Matt Wetrich that later took on a life of its own, with people on Facebook convinced the city of Jefferson was intending to replace its entire police force with social workers.

Hiring police officers has become a daunting task in recent years, Clouse has said, with far fewer applicants. That has pit departments with better pay and more resources against those with bottom-tier pay and equipment — meaning that Clouse is lucky to hold onto a new officer for more than eight months.

Officers in Jefferson start at $42,554 annually. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for police nationally in 2019 was $65,170.

But by simply donning a different uniform, Jefferson officers garner a $7,000 raise by becoming Greene County sheriff’s deputies. By July of 2021, Gordon has said, there will be a $10,000 difference in pay between local officers and deputies.

“It is disheartening to see a part-time secretary hired at more per hour than even the highest-paid patrol officers,” Williams read Tuesday from his letter. “When you have new officers and they see this, I don’t blame them for wanting to leave.”

Williams pointedly asked the city to address the root of the police department’s retention issue.

“Right now you’re way below what most communities are,” he said, referring to starting pay.

Clouse currently has “four bodies” to cover Jefferson 24/7, but two Jefferson officers are in the running for deputy positions in Guthrie County. Clouse said he’s “fairly confident” he’ll lose at least one to Guthrie.

But Gordon said that police pay is just “one of the rungs we need to climb to fix this problem.”

That much became evident recently when Jefferson Police Capt. Heath Enns resigned after 11 years to become a deputy.

“I no longer wish to be part of this environment that has been created by city administration,” Enns wrote in a six-page resignation letter dated Aug. 10, a copy of which was obtained by the Herald.

Morale has become an issue in light of a March 2 email written by Palmer to members of the council — portions of which were reprinted in Enns’ resignation letter and were authenticated by Gordon. In it, Palmer indicated that he thought the police department’s real retention issue is “the leadership of the department.”

“The environment is ‘toxic negativity’ and no amount of money, people or equipment is going to fix that unless there is a change in attitude,” Palmer wrote.

The police department has cited 180 percent turnover in the last three years, Palmer wrote, “but yet takes no responsibility for the turnover during the four-year tenure of the current leader while other departments have no such issue.”

He added: “I find it extremely dangerous that one department is allowed to essentially lobby, campaign and shame other departments, elected officials and citizens in order to place a band-aid over the real problem.

Enns said he believes the city council has been fed “inaccurate information,” and that Palmer’s misrepresentation of Police Chief Mark Clouse is “extremely misleading and defamatory.”

“The guy’s a father figure to all of us,” Enns said, speaking recently with the Herald about Clouse.

Asked last week if he thought the police department has a “toxic” work environment, Palmer told the Herald, “I’m not down there. I don’t know.”

Williams, who also serves as chief of Jefferson’s volunteer fire department, pulled no punches of his own at Tuesday’s meeting, thanking Gordon for his support of the police and fire departments, but accusing the rest of the city of taking their first responders for granted.

He said officers and firefighters put their own storm-related problems on hold after the recent derecho, but “not one word was said other than that the streets crew did a good job.”

“This is a simple fix as far as pay goes,” Williams said. “Simply raise the starting pay to a competitive scale. This would cost the city less money than sending two or three through the academy every year. I get that other city employees will not be happy with not getting the raise, but compared to other positions within the city, law enforcement is an inherently more risky and dangerous job.”

Williams’ statement portrayed a city with backward priorities, citing his own experience as Jefferson volunteer fire chief.

“We feel like we have to beg and plead to get anything that is required for the safety of the citizens of Jefferson,” he said. “I am thankful that the city agreed to purchase the last truck, but it took over six months to get it approved, when a tarp for the pool that nearly cost just as much was approved in a week.”

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