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Police need neighbors’ watchfulness

Harrison County Sheriff Mike Deatrick wasn’t making excuses, but his department is pretty well stretched to the limit, and that’s after Caesars Indiana riverboat casino provided the county with eight extra officers several years ago. Deatrick would prefer to have three officers working each shift, but often it’s only one.
Indiana State Police Trooper Steve Didat said he wasn’t complaining either, but sometimes there’s only one state trooper available for the entire ISP Sellersburg post area that takes in five counties, including Clark, where most of the action is.
Deatrick, Didat and several other officers spoke at a meeting on Oct. 25 at the new Elizabeth Civic Center, called by the town trustees and clerk-treasurer Hugh Burns to discuss what could be done to stop or curtail residential break-ins and property theft.
Burns said it’s a problem that plagues Elizabeth and other rural areas of Harrison County and elsewhere in Indiana. It’s been made worse by the proliferating methamphetamine labs. ‘It’s skyrocketing in Indiana,’ Didat said. ‘Sting operations take up lots of manpower and time.’
Deatrick said his officers spend most of their time working traffic accidents and investigating domestic violence cases in a county whose population is constantly expanding. One recent fatal accident in a rural area required the attention of three officers for hours. When something like that happens, the rest of the county goes unprotected or under-served.
Didat, an ISP trooper for 15 years, works in Harrison and Floyd counties. He said the Sellersburg post has 33 officers who work three shifts, ‘twenty-four seven’ in five counties. When you factor in retirements, vacations, required training periods and comp time, sometimes there are just not enough officers to go around. The state police budget, as with other state agencies, has been cut to the bone, and ‘We’re trying to do more with less,’ Didat said. ‘We drive our cars until the engine or transmission goes out.’ He said he hasn’t had a raise in five years.
‘If we’re lucky, we may have two officers working the first shift in Harrison and Crawford counties,’ Didat said. The budget for comp time has been cut out, even though some officers have hundreds of hours of comp time coming.
Bill Wibbels, another ISP trooper, said, ‘Some nights, one person can run this district. Some nights, 35 isn’t enough.’ He said burglaries are the toughest crimes to solve, more difficult than murder or child molesting.
The good thing and the bad thing about Harrison County, he said, is its isolated rural nature. Some people find it the ideal place to live. Burglars prefer it, too. S.R. 111 along the Ohio River provides New Albany burglars, who often work in teams, with a clean, fast shot in and out of the county. Between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., they select an empty house, cut the phone lines, take what they want, and are gone without much fear of interference.
That’s where neighborhood watchfulness come in. ‘It’s up to you. Watch out for your neighbor,’ said Sheriff Deatrick. ‘If you see something suspicious, call us!’
‘We have to rely on what you people see. We do the best we can with our budget and what we have to work with,’ Deatrick said.
‘Suspecting someone and proving illegal activity beyond the shadow of a doubt are two different things, but good police work sometimes stops the activity,’ Didat said.
Sometimes the mere appearance of an officer stops the problem.
The downside is that not all calls turn out to be real burglaries. the sheriff’s offices gets thousands of calls, some of which are false alarms. This year the sheriff’s office has averaged more than 300 case calls a month involving everything from a neighbor’s dog to property disputes, child custody and divorce cases.
Suzanne Fetz said the problem with neighborhood watchfulness is that most of the residents in Elizabeth are elderly and won’t talk or get involved because they fear retaliation. They see something suspicious but don’t call the police. ‘What else can we do? How can we convince them to tell what’s going on?’ she asked.
Didat asked, ‘Has there been any retaliation?’
Deatrick said he knew of one robbery case and a threat made.
The sheriff said county police are willing to keep suspects in jail ‘as long as we can until the victims are willing to make a statement.’
Wibbels said a part-time marshal would help. ‘The real problem is we need more money to hire more officers.’
Didat said it boils down to how much money people are willing to pay to hire police officers.
Deatrick, a former councilman, nodded to Councilman Ralph Sherman of Mauckport and said citizens can talk to their county councilmen about the need for more officers.
Didat said overtime budgets became such a big problem with the ISP that it was cut out, except for emergencies. Some officers have built up 200 to 300 hours of comp time. Didat said he has 100 hours coming.
In response to a question by Mark Marion, Sheriff Deatrick said his department has 28 reserves who work for free after their regular jobs. They can’t work serious crimes, like murders, and only five can go out on the road because only so many cars are available.
The state requires reserves to have 16 hours of police training, and, like regular officers, they can be held liable.
‘It takes a good year to train an officer,’ said deputy sheriff Eric Fischer.
Residents can help by insuring their residences and property and identifying valuables beforehand, so they can be recovered or at least give police something to go on. If a robbery occurs and a person can’t prove that something like a television or motorcycle is his, it makes the investigation more difficult. ‘A lot of little things add up,’ Fischer said.
One additional officer in each county would enable police to do more and better investigations, instead of being forced to go from one event to the next, Didat said.
Alan Dever said, ‘What it comes down to is it’s up to us on our end.’
Ray Saylor, the chief marshal in Milltown and a representative of the Southeast Indiana Town Marshals Association, said marshals are only as effective as the town allows them to be.
Not many small towns have the kind of budget to afford a marshal, it was said, but multi-year grants are available, Saylor said.
Dever asked, ‘If we catch someone in our house, what can we do? How far can we go? I don’t want to kill anyone or shoot someone.’
He was told that he has the right to protect himself and should take what action he thinks is appropriate. However, if the homeowner should hurt or shoot someone who’s fleeing, for example, the homeowner can be liable.
Deatrick told a story of a person who caught three men breaking into his house. They fled in a car and he chased them down and rammed them with his vehicle. All three burglars were injured, but in a subsequent court case, the homeowner lost nearly everything he had.
Didat’s advice was, ‘Use your eyes, pencil and paper.’