City council puts police dissolution to bed

Alexis Barker, News Editor

The Newcastle City Council has voted to end the discussion on possibly dissolving the Newcastle Police Department and moving all city police services to the Weston County Sheriff’s Office. 


As previously reported by the News Letter Journal, Councilman Tyrel Owens first suggested on Sept. 5 that the council hold a public meeting to gauge the public’s interest in city- vs. county-led policing. He cited staffing troubles, financial consideration and crumbling infrastructure as some of the reasons that constituents had approached him about such a change. 


On Oct. 30, the council held a town hall to listen to public input on the issue. While many in attendance, led by former city officials, expressed their desire to keep the department for reasons of continued “public safety,” there was a faction that suggested  the council continue to explore the option and ultimately make a decision for the community after further investigation. 


Mayor Pam Gualtieri promised that the future of the police department would be on the agenda and discussed at the council’s next meeting, on Nov. 6. 

At that meeting, Gualtieri stated that the consensus of those who attended the meeting, both those who spoke and those who signed in (leaving their preference on the sheet), was to keep the police force. 


“I would like to put it to rest today if the council agrees,” she said, noting that she would like to hear from the council in a roll call. 


First to speak, Owens stated that, based on the numbers generated at sign-in, he thinks that a lot of people are undecided. He acknowledged that he personally was not 100% certain whether the city should get rid of the police department, and felt the general uncertainty warranted further discussion and exploration of the subject. 


He didn’t believe the issue should be “put to bed” yet, but the rest of the council members expressed their personal desire to keep the police department as is. 


“I am basically against doing anything about dissolving,” Councilman Tom Voss said, adding that giving up the city’s power to an “elected official” could end in a “hellacious mess.” 


“I don’t want police to be a political ping pong ball,” Voss said. 


Councilwoman Ann McColley agreed with Voss.


“I am wanting to put this to bed right now. I am tired of the turmoil the city has been under. It seems everything is in an uproar. I am ready to move on,” McColley said. “I am willing to give Chief Derek Thompson the chance to move forward.”


Councilman Don Steveson, John Butts and Daren Downs also expressed their support for the department, but Downs’ support came with a caveat.


While he supported keeping the department, he stated that some of the recent turmoil caused him some concern with the state of the department and its operation. The councilman had previously raised concerns over the lack of enforcement of local ordinances and state laws on the part of the city, and he also expressed frustration over non-performance that he said he has witnessed personally. 


Downs explained that on two separate occasions, he has discovered a police officer sleeping in a patrol vehicle during their shift, in a parking lot for the public to see. Gualtieri tried to quickly stop his remarks by citing a need to maintain confidentiality in personnel issues, but Downs — who did not identify the police officer(s) specifically — responded that there was no confidentiality to preserve because the action — or lack thereof —  had occurred in broad daylight at 10 a.m. 


“Thompson has his work cut out for him. He took it (the Police Chief position), and I hope he does something with it,” Downs said. “I guess I am to the point that I don’t even care. … If you are not going to do anything about ordinances, throw the ordinance book away.” 


In an apparent reference to a desire for 24-hour law enforcement coverage expressed by supporters of the city police department at last month’s Town Hall, Downs noted that the police could sit idle while on standby unless there is a call. He believes that the people who spoke at the meeting were only concerned about “being protected,” not addressing the ordinance and traffic violations that are officially under the city police department’s purview. 


Despite those concerns, the council voted unanimously to cease the discussion on possible police department dissolution, but later in the meeting Owens again acknowledged the issues at the Newcastle Police Department that had led to the discussion. 


“The police department has been suffering with issues over the last two years. I think that is why so many people are coming forward wanting to discuss what we were discussing,”  Owens said. “We were down to two employees at one point. We alienated people on the department, and they moved on. We were to the bare bones and the mayor and president of the council were administrative chiefs for like a year.” 


He noted that he believes those were the issues that led to the frustration expressed by his constituents, and said he hopes Thompson — who the council confirmed to the position last month — can lead  the department in making a comeback. 


“It wasn’t just ‘crazy Tyrel.’ I was trying to come up with an idea to take care of the community, to not lose jobs and to be able to have law enforcement here,” Owens concluded.

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