Sheriff’s office builds relationships, safety services

Published 3:53 pm Thursday, June 6, 2024

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Lowndes County Sheriff Chris West serves alongside command staff and officers of the 18-member county-wide law enforcement agency to provide safety services for area residents. Like many Alabama sheriff’s, his office accomplishes much behind the scenes to ensure the best possible service to residents of “the 45.”

With every effort, West instructs officers and investigators to build relationships, a factor which lends itself to better services through stronger cohesion within the community.

“What we want is relationship building,” West said. “Most interactions the public has with law enforcement is negative. So, I guide officers toward cohesiveness between us and the community.”

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Most people, especially in small rural communities like those in Lowndes County, don’t need jail time to work out their problems, West explained. Knowing this, he works to get people talking, to settle their differences peacefully when possible.

“If you can get people together, then they can talk,” West said. “Even if they can agree to disagree, they can go their separate ways and no one has to go to jail.

“I want our officers to understand that if we can be approachable, we have the ability to communicate with the community and them with us. Then when we have serious situations, like a homicide, we have that road of communication open, and people won’t be so reluctant to talk with us.”

One step toward building community relationships is the addition of a second K-9 deputy. The dog is trained to locate only drugs and guns, but not in attack or search methods. He and handler Stephen Ziglar are dedicated to working in schools and building trust with area students.

“A lot of kids are terrified of dogs,” West said. “So, we brought the dog to a meeting and let parents hang out with him. We’re hoping he will be another tool to help us bridge the gap and build trust so that when something isn’t right, kids don’t feel threatened by his presence.”

The department provides School Resources Officers (SRO) who are assigned to work within designated communities and the schools in that area. Chief Deputy Reginald McKitt said the department aims to assign enough officers to the SRO position to meet the needs of all area schools.

“We’re looking at getting officers, along with the K-9 deputy, assigned as an SRO to work in all the different schools,” McKitt said. The plan, he explained, is aimed at fostering relationships with students to help ensure safety and serves as models and mentors for the students.

“We also want to divide the county into districts to provide quicker response time,” McKitt said.

The addition of a CAD, computer aided dispatch system, enables West to access and analyze crime location data and helps with solving crimes. Coupled with the addition of officer positions, growing the department from around five patrol deputies and investigators to 18 sworn officers, enables the department to better protect the community.

“At one time we only had two or three patrol officers and a couple of investigators,” said Patrol Commander Lt. Nicholas Cognasi. “We had no coverage at night and worked ‘on call.’”

Project Lifesaver is another service the department provides, which helps families keep track of loved ones living with a condition which may impair their judgment.

“Project Lifesaver helps families with a child or adult member with a tendency to wander off,” McKitt said. “There is a tracking device, provided at no cost to qualifying families, which helps us locate them and get them back home safely.”

An upgrade to Quickbooks accounting software has enabled the department to streamline expenses and manage revenue, said Administrative Commander Jeremy Marvin.

“Not having to thumb through a book in a box has been a lifesaver,” Marvin said.

Civil Service Commander Vernessia Thicklin pointed out that the units of the department work together not just on patrol or during crime investigations, but also to serve court subpoenas, transport inmates for hearings and medical care, ensure safety at the courthouse and also provide transportation for citizens living with cognitive impairment. 

“The public is not aware of the many people in our community with impaired mental capacity,” Thicklin said. “Through our probate judge we handle their transportation, picking them up and taking them to the health department for a shot or medical care.

“I pull [officers] from these other administrative leaders,” Thicklin said. “We do all this so residents can have peace of mind in their homes.”