Wednesday, January 16, 2013
On Monday, Dec. 31, Gary Sisk was sworn in as the county’s first new sheriff in more than 20 years.
“I’m here to serve the citizens of Catoosa County,” he said last week. “I feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility.”
Sisk’s career in law enforcement has included stints as a corrections and patrol officer as well as 10 years on recently retired Sheriff Phil Summers’ command staff, for which Sisk served for more than 2 1/2 years as chief deputy.
Even though he had very much the same duties and authority while serving as chief deputy, Sisk said being the county’s top cop is decidedly different.
“Now the responsibility is ultimately mine,” he said. “The old adage ‘The buck stops here’ is definitely true.”
A case in point has been recent negotiations with the County Commission concerning how — and how much — the Sheriff’s Office will benefit if the upcoming SPLOST referendum is adopted in March.
Even before he was administered his oath of office, Sisk pitched the need for replacing the department’s fleet of patrol cars. Commissioners approved the immediate lease-purchase of seven equipped vehicles and have included a similar plan to replace 68 cars as part of the special purpose local option sales tax referendum.
“The commissioners realize that because we’ve not replaced cars over the past few years, that the need for new cars is great and growing,” Sisk said. “These cars are driven day-in and day-out for 12-hour shifts, and when they reach 100,000 miles their maintenance becomes an issue.”
While more cars are on order with more to follow, the new sheriff’s request of about $6 million to enlarge the current detention center was rebuffed.
“Jail expansion will be critical in the next few years,” Sisk said, noting that the facility is now at about 90 percent capacity. “We have to be ready to act quickly and be proactive.”
Initial reports from a study being conducted by the Sheriff’s Association that weighs arrests, the mix of misdemeanant and felony cases and the number of inmates awaiting trial or serving sentences indicate nearly doubling the jail’s capacity will be needed within the next 10-15 years, he said.
“Capacity is 248 and they predict we’ll need a facility that can house 510 inmates,” said Sisk.
Rehabilitation, not incarceration
During his campaign, Sisk said alternative sentencing, a supportive counseling network and rehabilitation would not only reduce the jail population but benefit the community in a number of ways.
The majority of arrests within Catoosa County are due to incidents of domestic violence — not because the battle of the sexes has become more physical, but rather because of changes in law.
“It is mandated by law ... if the responding officer determines a crime has been or probably will be committed, they must bring the offender or offenders before a judge,” Sisk explained. “Whether or not to prosecute is not a choice the victim makes.”
While domestic violence results in the greatest number of responses and arrests, probation violators occupy a lot of detention center bunks.
About 40 percent of the inmate population is behind bars because of probation violation. Some might have committed a crime while out of jail, some could be behind in making court-ordered restitution or child support payments, and some are locked up for having technically violated a judge’s order regarding their probation.
Courts cannot sentence these violators to a state prison, which means judges order them to be housed in the county jail.
“There must be consequences for doing wrong, but we need to try to make offenders productive members of society,” Sisk said.
Inside the jail, drug and alcohol education programs are already in place, but he sees a need for continued support once an inmate is freed.
“Community outreach from the community, particularly churches, will be another component in helping an offender become a productive member of society,” Sisk said. “But that means support not just for the one that was jailed, but also for their family. It is always critical to follow up after they serve their time.”
He said he believes faith-based programs and support groups have proven to be among the most effective ways to help in rehabilitation, and those are things the community is capable of doing in a cost-effective and ongoing manner.
“It’s like having a workout partner,” Sisk said of offering one on one counseling that prods someone to do something to improve themselves, even if it is something they would not do otherwise. “That’s what makes Weight Watchers effective.”
Mentors, reserves and volunteers
Breaking the cycle of incarceration and recidivism can also involve stopping criminal behavior before it becomes ingrained, which is why the new sheriff wants to start a new program in partnership with the local schools.
Having school resource officers in middle and high schools has been praised by educators, parents and pupils for years.
Sisk wants to establish a mentoring program that will have uniformed officers sheduled to visit elementary schools on a regular, possibly weekly, basis.
“This will be a way to help prevent continued development of at-risk kids,” he said. “Officers can provide a positive influence — some of these kids only see law enforcement as a punishment.”
He said he would also like to develop a reserve unit that draws on retired individuals with a background in law enforcement at the local, state or federal level. These reserves would meet standards necessary to be sworn officers and could be called on to support the department in times of need.
Though not adding to the number of sworn officers, there is a distinct possibility that a citizens’ police academy will be offered.
“It would educate the community about what the sheriff’s department does,” Sisk said. “It is something the public has asked for and we might offer an academy once or even twice a year.”
He said he hopes to enhance Neighborhood Watch programs throughout the county. This partnership between the Sheriff’s Office and the public often focuses on preventing and solving property crimes.
Proof that Catoosa’s are among the elite
Sisk said the Sheriff’s Office has completed it CALEA evaluation and will learn in March if the department has earned its national certification.
The Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies was created in 1979 as a national credentialing authority for law enforcement professionals.
“Accreditation goes to the core of operations of our department,” Sisk said. “We open our doors and allow other agencies to asses our standards and we provide proof that we’ve met those standards. Ours will be the first in Northwest Georgia and one of only seven departments statewide to gain that distinction.”