Smaller cities turn to sheriff’s office for protection

Published 9:11 pm Tuesday, June 2, 2009

After Wilton’s police chief resigned in February, the town decided to disband its police force entirely, opting to pay the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office for protection.

It’s a decision several cities and towns have made in recent years.

In 2004, Wilsonville became the first Shelby County municipality to contract law enforcement to the sheriff’s office.

Since then, Chelsea, Indian Springs, Westover and Wilton have signed contracts too.

Capt. Ken Burchfield said the program gives cities and towns access to resources they might not have otherwise.

“The city pays one fixed cost for everything … the deputy, car and equipment,” said Burchfield. “Basically, everything it costs to outfit that deputy.”

A one-year contract for one deputy costs around $78,000. Chelsea pays for four deputies, while Wilsonville and Wilton have one. Westover and Indian Springs share the cost of one deputy.

“If they don’t have enough tax base, cities might go together and split the cost,” said Burchfield.

Chelsea Mayor Earl Niven said the program works well in his growing city.

“We could not start our own police department,” said Niven. “It would be too much.”

Niven estimates it would cost Chelsea a little more than $1 million a year to run its own police department. It currently pays $313,000 annually for its four deputies.

“With the economy the way it is, a lot of people are looking at police departments and making adjustments,” Niven said. “When you think about what the sheriff’s office offers, I think we are getting excellent service.”

In addition to its patrolling deputies, Niven said Chelsea also has access to the county’s investigators, drug force or SWAT team.

Several other cities have considered contracting out their law enforcement.

The sheriff’s office held an informative session Jan. 30 to share information about how the program works.

Columbiana leaders looked into the possibility in 2006, but ultimately decided to keep their own police department.

Mayor Allan Lowe said it doesn’t hurt to look into the program every few years or so.

“We looked at it. The program has become really robust,” said Lowe. “It’s something we have not ruled out, but at this time, it’s not something we are focusing on.”

Lowe said his only concern about the program is the city might lose what he called “hometown policing.”

“The sheriff’s office has remarkable resources. They would be able to perform the duties they spell out with incredible efficiency,” Lowe said. “But we felt like they couldn’t do what we do on a regular basis like escorting business owners making late night deposits or checking on the elderly folks. There is a definite value to having police officers here who worked these streets and who know who people are.”