Sheriff’s Office Challenged By Rising Calls And Budget Shortfall

Joyce Coates
Enterprise Staff
The Benton County Sheriff’s Office faces a staffing shortage amid rising calls, coupled with a budget shortfall. Despite this, as 2017 comes to an end, Sheriff Eric Knox can take pride in what he and his deputies have accomplished. More than one challenge has been met or overcome. They acknowledge support of residents, of County Commissioners, the fundraising by Friends of Benton County Sheriff’s Office, and the collaboration and assistance of other equally-dedicated public safety and law enforcement colleagues. 
Between January and November 2017, the sheriffs   deputies responded to a total of 17,033 incidents, an average 1,548 per month.  December’s numbers, not yet final, will bring the year’s total close to 18,500.  Since the population of the jurisdiction is also in the 18,000 range, the workload can be equated to one incident per every man, woman, and child in Benton County.
“To keep my word about being transparent,” Knox said, “I want to inform and explain that sometimes there are lag times in between calls and responses because of sudden life-threatening situations we have to respond to first.”
Knox gave an example of a deputy on his way to respond to a call about vandalism who was interrupted by emergency calls three separate times.  That was the reason he could not get to the scene of the first call as soon as the victim of vandalism expected. 
Diana Marmino volunteers as a data analyst and gives 30 to 40 unpaid hours per week.  She maintains a spreadsheet of monthly numbers and categories of incidents that the 12.5 full-time road deputies respond to. The “.5” represents one deputy whose other half-time duties include court appearances and transporting inmates. She also serves as the training coordinator and serves the office in other vital functions. 
The secretary Michelle Bruns, has responsibilities as jailer, administrative assistant, accountant and janitor!
 For the Sheriff and deputies, besides the to-and-from the scene response times, following each incident they spend and average of 60 minutes or more completing the detailed, mandatory paperwork. 
“It takes about 4 hours to cover a DWI,” Knox said. Traffic stops from January to November totaled 1733, and in the same period, careless and imprudent driving stops numbered 556. 
The category with highest numbers for the period were 911 calls –  2,039.  Fifty-three percent of those calls, 1081, ended in “hang ups”. Nevertheless, a deputy was dispatched to the address or, if unknown, to the general area, to investigate.  
“Probably 99 percent of 911 hang-ups do not involve a crime in progress,” Sheriff Knox said, “but we respond because we don’t want to ignore the one percent chance that someone’s life is at stake.”
Enhanced 911 (E-911) systems display a caller’s address and phone number.  In the event of a hang up, or an open line call where the connection is live but there is no audible response to the operator, deputies are dispatched and can most often locate the caller.  Sometimes a person dials 911 by mistake, as happened 208 times as of November 30 this year. But repeated misuse – 119 separate events in the same period, is a Class B misdemeanor that may result in up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000 (RSMo. 190.308).
Knox reminds that parents, and others, may not be aware that disabling a mobile phone, for instance, does not automatically disable the emergency dial feature. If the phone is On, even little fingers at random play can unwittingly generate a 911 call.
Dispatchers do more than receive phone calls.  They are “…also short staffed… these folks who ride along with us in our patrol vehicles through radio contact, who share our experiences with each call. … It takes a special person to be a dispatcher,” wrote Sheriff Knox in his December 13 Facebook post.
Besides responding to 911 calls, between January and November, individuals called the Sheriff or a deputy directly for assistance 1,590 times.  
Calls for response to animal abuse (96), animal control (357), and animals in the road (271) – all from January to November, rank fourth highest, with a combined total of 724. Fifth are responses to public and domestic disturbances involving physical and or verbal abuse – 632.
In addition to responding to crime-related calls, the Sheriff’s Office has performed 611 well-being checks in the eleven months recorded so far.  The least, 33 in January 2017, and the most, 74 in July equates to at least one every day of the month, every month of the year.  
The entire spreadsheet listing totals for all categories included is posted on the Sheriff’s Offices Facebook page. It can be viewed at Join 3,312 current followers to receive frequently updated information and photos.
Of course, budget shortfalls are among the other challenges. The Sheriff’s Office has faced hardships beyond the already well-known problem of the aged and deteriorating building that houses the jail. On the other hand, there have been some positives.
In May, commissioners approved the purchase of a Malinois, “K-9 Billy”, for $7,500.  His photo hangs alongside all the other members of the office.
In late July, County Treasurer Renno notified the Sheriff and Commissioners that the first deposit of proceeds was made to the law enforcement account (from the one-eighth percent sales tax approved in November 2016 and implemented in April 2017). Prisoner board is one of the expenses authorized to be paid from this fund.
In September commissioners notified Sheriff Knox that HMN Architects had been selected for the new jail project. In October, Knox reported that $11,342 had been raised from the community and that Friends of Benton County Sheriff’s Office had raised an additional $2,424 for body armor. 
On the downside, however, the bat infestation problem in the Sheriff’s Office attic reached crisis level in mid-June, increasing operating costs and creating health and safety problems that required closing off the second floor entirely. A five-year lease of offices in the downtown Hawthorn Bank was signed to provide new space for deputies who had to be relocated. A new ventilation system was installed for the jail in July at a cost of $2,500. Thereafter, furnaces were cleaned in the old building where the sheriff and jail remain operating, and renovations began of the new office spaces in preparation for the deputies’ move.
Recent follow up revealed more guano present than before, although at least 9,400 bats left the building through the exclusions installed this fall. Indefinite numbers remain. 
The second floor was quarantined for health and safety reasons, yet operating from two different locations is less efficient. Chief  Deputy Canfield, who also manages the vehicle fleet, walks back and forth between buildings several times a day. Good exercise, but time-consuming when time is short. 
In November, a near tragedy was averted when the lone jailer made a random check, just in time, on an inmate who had attempted to hang himself.  The inmate was caught on camera, unconscious, with strips of bedsheet he had torn off and twisted into a noose around his neck. 
Incidents like these justify Knox’s request for additional jailers.  He needs four additional deputies and a full-time investigator.  However, he has asked for two additional deputies for the current time. (See the announcement posted December 8, 2017 on Facebook using the URL address above.)
An investigator would relieve each deputy from the substantial time spent - or that needs to be spent, to follow up his/her own cases – 469 in the first 11 months of 2017.  Taking several hours from each new day’s requirements to follow up pending cases is difficult at best, and sometimes impossible to do in a timely fashion. 
The Sheriff has discussed his office’s budget issues at Commissioner’s meetings throughout the year.  He said, Commissioner Jim Hanson  stated the budget would have a $400K shortfall if every office’s requests were approved as submitted. 
Treasurer Renno reported sales tax revenues up in February, slightly up in April and May, down in June. Commissioners amended the budget in July and again in September to cover extra expenses. Sales tax revenues were down again in November, but up in December.  Knox presented his budget request to the commissioners for review on December 5. 
In the meantime, all who work in the office continue to do their duty day by day. They thank everyone for their support thus far, and ask with high hopes that they continue to “Support Your Local Sheriff!”