Sheriff weighs in on treasurer's county police comments

Janie Slaven | CJ

Sheriff Greg Speck is shown at the July 13 meeting of Pulaski County Fiscal Court addressing park security. The issue came up again this week, with Speck expressing concern over County Treasurer Joan Isaacs' comments about county police forces.

Pulaski County Sheriff Greg Speck has opinions about Tuesday's fiscal court meeting and ongoing discussions around park security.

Though not present at this week's meeting, the sheriff figured prominently in an exchange between District 4 Magistrate Mark Ranshaw and Pulaski County Deputy Judge-Executive Dan Price over what law enforcement agency should supervise park security officers.

While the plan as presented by Price and Judge Steve Kelley calls for the officers to be supervised by Pulaski County Chief of Police Aaron Ross -- and by extension, Judge Kelley -- Magistrate Ranshaw repeatedly pushed for supervision from Sheriff Speck on the grounds that his office has established policies and procedures.

By comparison, the county activated its police force nearly two years ago in order to comply with a then-new federal requirement that the NCIC (National Crime Information Center) database be restricted to law enforcement agencies. Ross, who had been hired as Pulaski 911 Director, was the force's only member as he was able to fulfill the requirement through his prior law enforcement training through the Ohio State Highway Patrol. With the county police now expanding into law enforcement, even if on a limited basis, Chief Ross has now been tasked with drafting a policies and procedures manual for the agency.

While Sheriff Speck noted that he would be willing to talk with county officials about park security should they wish to contract with his agency, he reiterated that he didn't have an issue with placing a security officer at Pulaski County Park (the largest and busiest within the county park system).

The sheriff told the Commonwealth Journal that a scheduling conflict prevented him from attending Tuesday's fiscal court meeting but he started receiving calls about it shortly after it ended. From there, he watched the video from the meeting himself and was most concerned by comments from County Treasurer Joan Isaacs.

On Tuesday, Isaacs had suggested that Ross might want to talk with Garrard County officials since that county primarily utilizes a county police force for law enforcement. She went on to say that, in Kentucky, a sheriff's statutory responsibilities center more on tax collection and providing court security.

"Her remarks seemed like researched remarks," Sheriff Speck said. "…I have to ask myself why would anybody want to basically dismantle the sheriff's office enforcement duties and replace them with an unelected chief. The people of Pulaski County have a right to be served by an elected representative as their sheriff. The sheriff's office has always served the citizens of Pulaski County well; it's a longstanding tradition here."

Though not familiar with Garrard County's set-up, Speck countered that an effort to institute a county police force in Taylor County ultimately failed. He noted that operating a law enforcement agency is an expensive venture.

"I know Garrard County is a very small county," he said. "…The population and their needs and demands on law enforcement I'm sure are on a much smaller scale than Pulaski County."

In terms of the agency he heads, Sheriff Speck acknowledged an ongoing fight against understaffing and added low morale has become an issue over the past year -- in part due to the national climate in regard to law enforcement as well as the COVID pandemic.

"I've had deputies leaving the sheriff's office, not to go to another law enforcement agency," Speck said, "but to go to private-sector jobs. They're rethinking their career choice and talk like that does nothing but further hurt morale.…

"We need to build up these young men and women in law enforcement right now," he continued. "It's not the time to demoralize them any further."

The sheriff said he saw no indication from the meeting's video or from his past dealings with county government that fiscal court members supported Isaacs' comments. According to him, the county has contributed greatly toward deputy salaries going back to the administration of the late Sheriff Sam Catron.

"The magistrates have always been very supportive, very helpful and always do everything they can to support the sheriff's office," Sheriff Speck said, adding that Judge Kelley expressly stated more than once during Tuesday's meeting that it wasn't the county's intent to take over law enforcement duties. "A move like that…I guess to fund it you would have to take the funds that are ordinarily given to the sheriff's office and redistribute them, I assume, to fund this county police force. But that in effect would be defunding the primary law enforcement services of Pulaski County."

Speck added that he's done his best over the course of his tenure to increase the excess fees that are turned over to county government each year.

"I think that's my job to be responsible to the taxpayers and to remit funds that I don't need back to the county," he said. "I'm pretty proud of the fact that it's been around $1 million that I've remitted back."

The sheriff emphasized that he heard no support for Isaacs' suggestion from Fiscal Court nor from the "many, many calls" he'd received from the public after Tuesday's meeting. Speck proposed that the county treasurer would better help by looking "into a way to give underpaid deputies a bonus from that $12.6 million in COVID funds that the county received.

"The deputies worked night and day everyday during COVID," he said. "There was no working at home here. We went into homes where sick people were. I've had many people sick and I know other places, the jail, everybody has.…They did their duty regardless of the risk -- all risks including COVID."

Sheriff Speck, who will end his two-term tenure at the end of 2022, concluded by saying he hoped the comments were just "off-the-wall remarks" but warned he'd fight against expansion of the county police force into the sheriff's office domain.

"If I see steps to expand the county police beyond the parks' security, I will be a strong advocate for keeping the sheriff's office as the primary law enforcement agency of the county," he said.

For Isaacs' part, she said Tuesday that her comments were not offered as a recommendation but merely an option. She added that no one asked her to look into the matter but simply knew of the Garrard County situation from being acquainted with a member of that county's government.

"Our main goal is not to have a county police force and basically put the sheriff's office out of business," Isaacs said. "That's not what we want to do. It's just that we need to do this one thing [park security] but it does not need to be part of the sheriff's office."

Isaacs explained that while the park security officers would have arrest powers, it would only be on a "very limited" basis. The only expansion of duties she could foresee beyond the five existing parks would be to include other county-owned facilities and -sponsored events.

Asked why the county may rather use the county police force for the security officers than contract with the sheriff's office, Isaacs responded that other law enforcement calls could take precedence over county needs.

"Although we [county government] three-quarters of the way fund the sheriff's office," she said, "they're not at our disposal. [Deputies] have things they need to deal with; therefore, we're at the bottom of the totem pole if we need something. But if we need something, we need it and we can't necessarily wait."

In regard to COVID relief, Isaacs said she and Dep. Judge Price are looking into how best to distribute some of those funds to all the county's essential workers -- including deputies. It's complicated, she continued, by the structure involved with federal government, state government, the retirement system and more.

"It's not something that's going to come around next week," Isaacs said. "…I have reached out to my [Kentucky county] treasurers' association…We'll have to make sure we have our Ts crossed and Is dotted, and come up with an amount that is fair to everyone. It's going to be a long process."

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