In past years, the only time a citizen would interact with the law enforcement agency in their area was as the result of tragedy or a criminal incident in which they were involved as a victim or suspect. Thats because law enforcement, in the past, was primarily reactive.
As the decade of the traditional approach to policing clicked by, it became clear that law enforcement was becoming very adept at solving crimes and catching criminals; crime, however, was on the rise and our prisons were overflowing.
When Sheriff Clay Whittle took office in April 1995, he swore to protect and serve all of the citizens of Columbia County regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status or political affiliation. Prior to his election, Whittle served as chief deputy for eight years. He became aware that the citizens wanted several issues addressed but because of a manpower shortage and the organizational structure, the agency was hard pressed to fulfill its mission - let alone deal with those other issues.
One of the concerns Whittle had was the agencys ability to capture relevant crime data to perform effective crime analysis. He understood that to take a proactive approach, he needed a reliable database for analysis. In 1994, I was hired to manage the records section and implement a new reporting system compatible with the U.S. Department of Justices Incident Based Reporting System.
Whittle also began researching national accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Both Whittle and I understood that the Sheriffs Office would require considerable reorganization and redirection. Accreditation was viewed as the vehicle to accomplish this change.
Shortly after receiving our first package from CALEA, Whittle was forced to take a leave of absence during the election for sheriff. In the interest of time, I submitted the original application after it was signed by the interim sheriff.
Whittle used his leave of absence not only to campaign for office, but to interview several area law enforcement professionals. After his election, Whittle hired several of those professionals to fill key positions in his command staff. As a result of a coordinated effort by the newly formed command staff and members of this agency, 16 months after Whittles election the Columbia County Sheriffs Office became the first sheriffs office in Georgia to become internationally accredited. It is one of only 5 percent of the agencies worldwide to hold that distinction. The Sheriffs Office has since been successfully re-accredited in 1999 and 2002.
During accreditation, Whittle sought an action plan geared toward the community approach to law enforcement. Whittle has long been an advocate of the Community Oriented Policing (COPs) philosophy. He was acutely aware that in a rapidly growing community, and with limited manpower and resources, he would have to rely upon strong community involvement to reduce crime and the fear of crime, and improve the quality of life.
A massive effort ensued, involving citizen contacts, town meetings and neighborhood watch meetings, as well as creation of the Citizens Advisory Board and the Citizens Law Enforce-ment Academy, all of which led to the agencys reorganization. This remains an ongoing process as the agency reacts to crime, traffic trends and the needs and desires of the citizens.
The COPs policy was adopted, along with an effort on behalf of Sheriffs Office personnel and with support from county officials.
In addition, an unprecedented level of support and cooperation from the citizens of the county has had a positive impact on the crime rate during the past six years.
Since 1996, reported crime in Columbia County has decreased 24.4 percent, even as the countys population increased by more than 10,000 citizens. By all law enforcement standards, an agencys success is gauged by its ability to reduce and deter crime.
It is noteworthy to highlight some of the organizational changes within the Sheriffs Office since Whittles election in 1995. Prior his election, the Sheriffs Office consisted of the Patrol Division, Criminal Investigations Division, Records Section, Dispatch and the jail. Now, the office is divided into three bureaus: Field Operations, comprised of the Patrol Division, Special Operations Division and Investigations Division; Management Services Bureau, comprised of the Administra-tive Services Division, the Community Services Division and the Office of Professional Standards; and the Detention and Court Services Bureau.
We refer to our organization as an office, not a department, as some sheriffs do. The reason is that this office, tasked with providing law enforcement and public safety services to all citizens and visitors to Columbia County, belongs to the people. It is not a department of local government. It is an office of the citizenry, whose leader is chosen by the people, elected to serve and protect those people.
I hope this has provided a brief overview of your sheriffs office. We appreciate citizen interaction and input.
(Louis P. Ciamillo is chief deputy of the Columbia County Sheriffs Office.)
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