Smith: Staffing, jail security will be first priorities

By JENNIFER COHRON
Posted 1/1/19

(This is the first of a three-part series) Walker County Sheriff-elect Nick Smith will spend his first weeks in office staffing and restructuring the sheriff’s department.Smith, who will be …

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Smith: Staffing, jail security will be first priorities

Posted

(This is the first of a three-part series) 

Walker County Sheriff-elect Nick Smith will spend his first weeks in office staffing and restructuring the sheriff’s department.

Smith, who will be sworn in as sheriff on Jan. 14, will have several vacancies to fill because of employees who are retiring or taking other jobs. The open positions will include deputies, jailers and office staff. 

Proposed gradual transition from eight-hour shifts to 10-hour overlapping shifts will provide much-needed additional manpower until new hires are made, according to Smith. 

This change should improve the department’s response time as well by doubling the number of deputies on the road from three to six at certain times of the day.

The addition of part-time deputies to the current force of 20 full-time employees and having investigators go on patrol when they are not actively investigating a case will further increase the department’s presence in the county.

Investigators, who will be required to wear an official uniform rather than street clothes, have a mobile office inside their vehicles, Smith said. By getting outside the department’s walls, they will be able to gather information needed to solve cases.

“If you’re having break-ins in Empire and Nauvoo, you’re usually relying on the road deputy to get out there and make traffic stops. I know investigators have a busy call volume, but if they can be out during their downtime, they can make contacts with people themselves that help solve crimes instead of putting all the burden on our deputies. I think it will also mean a lot to our citizens to have the investigator who will be handling their burglary case come out to take the report,” Smith said. 

Smith, who has frequently utilized constables as police chief, will also invite constables who hold themselves in a professional manner to assist part-time deputies in answering low priority calls.

His goal is to take as much of the unnecessary burden off of road deputies as possible so they can fight the county’s most troubling crimes. 

“It’s aggravating to be out there trying to work and make a difference and you get called away because someone’s dog is barking too loud or someone is getting a harassing phone call. We need to keep their focus on important things like drugs, burglaries and domestic violence and use part-time deputies and constables to handle some of these low priority calls,” Smith said. 

Smith hopes to have all vacancies filled within the first 60 days of his administration. However, budget constraints will be a factor in the hiring process. 

Working the budget to get adequate staffing will take priority over aesthetic changes usually associated with a change in administration such as new uniforms and new striping of departmental vehicles. 

Smith said his intent is not to tear down the positive work done under Sheriff Jim Underwood but rather to build on the foundation he inherits.

He added that while the sheriff’s department is better overall than it was four years ago, there are major concerns about the state of the jail.

The Walker County Commission is expected to fund a major and long overdue electronic upgrade at the jail shortly after Smith takes office, allowing the incoming sheriff to focus on other changes.

Specifically, Smith is concerned about the number of employees in the jail who are working outside their civil service classification. By correcting that problem, at least three more full-time employees would be working in the jail, according to Smith.

He is also concerned about the number of deaths that have occurred at the Walker County Jail this year. Once he takes office, Smith plans to ask for the results of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s investigations of the jail deaths that have occurred this year. 

“Going to the Walker County Jail should not be a death sentence. Right now, that seems to be what it’s turning into,” Smith said.

He expects to develop a plan that sets benchmarks for improvements to be made at the jail within the first 30 days, 60 days and 90 days that he is in office. 

“On day one, I want to sit down with the jail employees and find out what we can do to improve the safety of the jail and to reduce the liability there,” Smith said.