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County Police Force Committee begins ‘daunting, complex’ task

The Beaufort County Police Force Committee held its first meeting Wednesday, starting what Commissioner Hood Richardson says will be a daunting and complex process.

The committee, which consists of Richardson and commissioners Stan Deatherage and Randy Walker, is tasked with researching if and how the county can establish its own police force that would potentially take over law enforcement duties from the Sheriff’s Office. The committee will report its findings to the entire Board of Commissioners.

If approved, the county police force would replace the Sheriff’s Office as the county’s primary law enforcement body, but the Sheriff’s Office would still handle statutorily required tasks such as court-related duties, serving warrants and running the county jail.  A local bill would need to be passed by the state legislature in order to establish the department, if the county decides to move forward with it.

“The sheriff over the years, because he ran the jail and kept the bad people locked up, more or less, law enforcement has been pawned off on the sheriffs,” said Richardson, the chairman of the committee. “And then a body of law has grown to assist the sheriffs in doing their duties. There’s nothing in the constitution in North Carolina that says the sheriff has to be the chief law enforcement officer of the county.

“We have no desire to take (Sheriff Ernie Coleman’s) duties, or interfere with his duties,” Richardson added.

Washington, Belhaven and Chocowinity each have their own municipal police departments.  Richardson said working cooperatively with those municipalities is a point of emphasis.

Point of reference

The Gaston County Police Department was established by the General Assembly in 1929.  The general assembly established a civil service board for the police department in1957. Chapter 904 of the session laws passed in 1983 details the structure and duties of the county police department.

A police chief who is appointed by the county manager heads the Gaston County Police Department. The civil service board, which in Gaston County’s case consists of three members who are appointed by the senior resident judge of the superior court in the county’s judicial district, handles a list of duties that include reviewing applications for vacant law enforcement officer positions, hearing grievances filed against county police officers, and conducting any requested reviews of disciplinary actions taken against county officers, among other things.

The Beaufort County Police Committee is planning to visit Gaston County in mid-April in order speak with administrators about their county police department, and learn more about how it operates.

In the meantime, the committee will meet again at 10 a.m. on March 25. The committee plans on soliciting input from entities that interact frequently with the Sheriff’s Office, such as emergency medical services providers, fire departments and N.C. Highway Patrol representatives. Input will also be sought from District Attorney Seth Edwards, Rep. Keith Kidwell and Sen. Ernestine Bazemore.

Walker mentioned that the committee can study and learn from Beaufort County Schools’ process of finding a contractor for school resource officer services. The school system is soliciting bids until Feb. 26.

“The Board of Education is actually ahead of us and what we’re doing here, because they’re going to be forced to get into the SRO business, and so they’re going to be coming up with questions and answers that we probably can use,” Walker said. “So we probably need to mirror or shadow what they’re doing.”

Richardson that the committee members need to do their “homework” before their next meeting by reading through supporting documents and bills, particularly those relating to the Gaston County Police Department.