Sylva police packed in like sardines

Just stepping inside the Sylva Police Department gives a person an immediate understanding of why Chief Davis Woodard is pushing so hard for a new building.

The department’s 14 officers, with one more being hired soon, and its three auxiliary officers share 1,000 square feet of room in the 1927-completed building, located on Allen Street. The building was originally designed and built for the town’s fire department; the police department started using it in 1990.

To describe the Sylva Police Department as rather crowded is akin to describing Sylva’s newly renovated historic courthouse and library complex as merely pretty. The words fall short of the reality.

The town’s police officers are crammed into the equivalent of five to seven standard parking spaces.

A few highlights include:

The women’s bathroom at the police department was recently sacrificed to create a tiny break room; all officers now share what had been the men’s bathroom.

Evidence is stored in three different areas; only one of which is actually in the police department. One of the evidence rooms, down in the basement of the building, sometimes floods when bordering Scotts Creek jumps its banks.

There is little to no room left, anywhere, for storing any additional items critical to any successful police investigation. This means when the State Bureau of Investigation finishes up lab work on evidence from a recent double homicide in Sylva, Woodard needs the town’s maintenance crew to construct some kind of special holding place to hold the dozens of items that will be sent to Sylva in anticipation of a trial. Who knows what the officers will do if another big case takes place anytime soon within the town’s limits.

A weight room or workout area, common to most police departments in the region in hopes officers will keep in shape, is simply out of the question. A Bowflex machine is gathering dust in storage at the back of town hall.

Full-sized personal lockers for the officers are also impossible given the space limitations — Woodard jokes about the “preschool”-sized ones in use now, quipping that he’d like his officers to have big-boy and big-girl lockers instead.

The first door to the left in the Sylva police department opens into a 20-x-18 square foot room used by the assistant police chief, four patrol supervisors and seven road officers. Lt. George Lamphiear said the scene is particularly chaotic during shift changes, with everyone jockeying for a place to work. Or in the middle of a huge case such as the double homicide, when the building had to host an additional four or five SBI agents, the district attorney and three or four of his assistants.

“We came into work (that day), and turned right around and went back out,” Lamphiear said. There was no room left for patrol officers and their supervisors to work in the building.

The department also has a small office for the police chief, a slightly larger office for the department’s two detectives, and a tiny reception area at the front. A couple of storage closets, and that’s it.

No interview room, no conference room and inadequate parking in the back, to boot.

If the Sylva Police Department does acquire the old library, Woodard and his officers will have, in place of 1,000 square feet, an airy 6,400 square feet at their disposal, plus 19 parking spaces.

Sounds like heaven on earth to Woodard and his officers.


The situation

Sylva’s council members have asked Jackson County to give the them the old library building on Main Street, now standing vacant, to use as a police department. County commissioners agreed last week to meet with their town counterparts on July 18 to discuss it. Sylva is offering, in return for the old library building, to give Jackson County the old chamber of commerce building it owns, a small building on Grindstaff Cove on the approach to downtown.

The sticking point, if there is one, might involve the disparate tax values of the two buildings involved. Sylva’s building is valued at $157,560; the county’s building is $796,000.

Town leaders, however, have described the swap as an issue of fairness, noting that in past years they have allowed the county to use town-owned buildings, such as the senior center, for no charge to taxpayers, or at nominal lease amounts such as $1 a year.

Sylva makes bid to Jackson leaders for old library

Sylva leaders want their Jackson County counterparts to lease, for $1 a year, the old library building to them, citing space needs and a heightened Main Street presence for the town’s police department.

The Sylva library is in the process of moving to a building beside the newly renovated, historic Jackson County courthouse. The grand opening is set for next month. This comes as Sylva’s 15-member police department jockeys for space in 1,000 square feet the town can allot to it. The Sylva Police Department is next to town hall on Allen Street, several blocks from the downtown.

Lack of space “makes it very difficult to investigate cases, interview witnesses and interrogate suspects,” town board member Chris Matheson, a former assistant district attorney, told county commissioners at a meeting this week. “It is imperative at this point we try to find a location for them.”

County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said they’d consider discussing the town’s request during a budget work session next week.

The town has eyed the former public library for a police department at least since the spring of 2009. Then Police Chief Jeff Jamison contacted then County Manager Ken Westmoreland at the town board’s request. Westmoreland told Jamison the county would be willing to sell or lease the building, but didn’t specify the town’s cost for either of those options.

That was then, and this is now: Jamison is gone, Westmoreland is gone, and a new majority of commissioners took control in last November’s election. It’s unclear what they want to do with the old library building, if they even know, at this juncture, themselves.

Matheson characterized the town’s desire for the centrally located building as something of an “equity issue.” She pointed out Sylva shares 50 percent of its ABC revenues with the county. A vast number of cases investigated by the town police involve people who have been drinking alcoholic beverages, Matheson said.

ABC dollars totaled $139,890 this year alone in revenue gains for Jackson County.

“What have we done that makes Sylva want to be so good to us?” Commissioner Joe Coward asked Matheson about the town’s willingness to share the ABC wealth.

The councilmember responded she believes Sylva simply didn’t — at least initially when it agreed to share the wealth — realize how significant the revenue stream would prove. After voters approved the sale of mixed drinks at bars and restaurants in a 2005 referendum, sales at the Sylva ABC store went up more than 40 percent.

This 50-50 split between a town and county is an unusual arrangement, Matheson said, and is mirrored by just five or so other municipalities in North Carolina.

Franklin keeps 100 percent of its ABC revenues; Bryson City keeps 90 percent and specifies the remaining 10 percent go to parks and recreation; Waynesville keeps 64 percent and gives 18 percent to the schools, and the remaining 18 percent is funneled into Haywood County’s general fund.

Matheson, drawing on her legal skills to weave a persuasive sticky web commissioners might find difficulty disentangling from, continued gently but firmly pressing for the coveted downtown space. She pointed out that Sylva officials were kind enough to rent to Jackson County a town-owned building for use as a senior-citizen facility — $1 a year for 15 years, and before that, for free. And, additionally, the town provided a building to house the chamber of commerce — again, Matheson noted, free of cost to the county.

What the town offers in return for the old library building, Matheson said in summation during her closing argument, is an opportunity to protect and serve all the residents of Jackson County who come, in large part, to conduct the county’s business in Sylva. And that could best happen if the space-crunched police department is in the old library; for, she said, a nominal fee a year accompanied by a long-term lease consisting of at least 25 years. And the town will even pay for renovations and repairs, which she estimated could total $150,000, Matheson said, adding a possible enticing carrot.

County commissioners thanked the town board member for her presentation, but did not commit one way or another to her request.

Carl Iobst, a regular member of the public at county meetings, told commissioners during the public-comment session that he wants the town to reimburse the county “a fair and reasonable amount” for the building, saying in these fiscally trying times, $1 a year is too little an amount for such a prize.

Tribal police struggle to communicate in outlying areas

In the farthest reaches of the Cherokee Indian  Reservation, work is being done to ensure that when crime happens, the police can be there.

While most portions of the reservation are central to Cherokee itself, within easy reach of police officers and their radio systems, the slivers of tribal land that lie unattached to the main reservation are a far larger challenge to law enforcement officials.

At issue here is the police department’s radio system, which, according to Cherokee Indian Police Chief Ben Reed, is just not strong enough to reach into the Snowbird community in Graham County or the Cherokee County portions of tribal property.

Sometimes this causes problems and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s something Reed said his department is actively looking into.

“Due to the mountainous terrain, it does create issues for us to develop a radio communications system that would reach 45 miles away or 60 miles away,” said Reed. “It’s very difficult to do.”

And while this doesn’t necessarily keep officers from answering calls, it does make communication between the police department and its officers in the outlying regions more difficult and time consuming.

Reed said that his department works closely with the sheriff offices of both counties, who allow the tribal cops to use their radio systems whenever it’s necessary. But calls don’t always come into the local counties’ 911 dispatches; sometimes, they’re called straight into the Cherokee dispatch center, which makes contacting an officer in Graham and Cherokee counties onerous.

Reed said that he and the other emergency response agencies are now putting together a task force to address that very issue, and hopefully they’ll be able to come up with some solutions as early as the end of next week.

“We’re going to figure out, you know, what are our options,” said Reed. “We need to get all these things in place and see where we’re at and is it even possible?”

Whether that means erecting new towers or getting newer, more powerful radio systems for outlying officers, Reed said he’s confident they can find solutions to the problem. The real issue, however, is funding those solutions.

“That’s probably going to take a lot of funding, and where’s the funding going to come from?” Reed said. “We can search for grants and lobby for more funding through our current resources, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the community is calling for a fix to the police communication problems that they see on the ground in the outer counties.

At a special tribal council meeting last month called specifically to address concerns of law and order on the Qualla Boundary, several residents lamented the slow response times to the more remote communities.

“When we talk about the jurisdiction of the land, the Qualla Boundary, it’s not just here on the main which has Jackson and Swain counties, but you’ve got Graham County and you also have Cherokee County,” said Cherokee resident Missy Crowe. “I’ve heard from the brothers and sisters way down in Cherokee County that they would call the police and they’d be lucky if they’d get an officer to respond to them.”

Reed said that, while they do have substations in both counties and six officers assigned to them — four in Snowbird and two in Cherokee County — he knows that more officers can always make things better.

“You can never have enough police officers, and although the calls are minimal in those areas, we still have to provide the community with sufficient resources to serve that population there,” said Reed, adding that his department has worked with those two communities over the last several years to identify just what residents want and need from law enforcement.

But when it comes to actually improving on-the-ground radio communication and coverage for remote communities, Reed said it’s just not something he and his officers can tackle alone.

Reed and his department are overseen by a police commission appointed by tribal council. And while he said he welcomes the oversight and needs the help, it’s no secret that the department and the commission have been at odds in recent months about the commission’s role and relationship to the police.

At last month’s meeting, Reed and members of the police commission had vocal disagreements about the commission’s actions, with Reed taking the position that commissioners were homing in on petty and restrictive issues while ignoring the bigger problems at hand. Radio communications, he said, were one of those concerns, and he reiterated that stance in an interview.

“That’s where we need help,” said Reed. “Those kind of issues aren’t easy. That’s not something that we can just look at tomorrow and say we need A, B and C done and just knock it out.”

He didn’t say whether the commission had been approached for involvement in the process, but noted that improving their radio signals was an important proactive step in the tribe’s crime-fighting approach.

“We’ve not had any major issues with it,” said Reed, “but we shouldn’t sit round and wait on a major issue to happen.”

Maggie Valley gets new police station: It’s the town’s first new public building since incorporation in 1974

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

As captain of the Maggie Valley police department, Jason Moody normally keeps his emotions in check. Today, though, as he leads a tour around the police department’s new building, he’s beaming.

Waynesville PD net 6 arrests in Internet sex sting

When Crystal Shuler posted an ad on Craig’s List this summer offering a full-service massage in Waynesville, she was flooded with email responses, more than 70 to be exact.

Shuler, a Waynesville police detective, wasn’t actually surfing for action but instead was launching a sting operation on a growing outlet for prostitution. Craig’s List, an on-line classified section for people buying and selling stuff from cars to baby clothes, has seen an explosion of entries under one category in particular — “erotic services.”

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