The sheriff’s office in a long chase

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The Surry County Sheriff’s Home Page displays the Dodge Durango and Dodge Charger. In Sheriff Steve C. Hiatt’s 2022-23 budget, he requested ten new pursuit-classified patrol cars, but a request does not guarantee a car because five cars budgeted for 2021-22 have yet to arrive.

In previous budget years, the Surry County Sheriff’s Office has prioritized hiring, but Chief Deputy Paul Barker told commissioners this year that a key focus of the upcoming budget was going to be equipment and vehicle requirements.

A problem area for Sheriff Steve Hiatt and his team is also a sore spot for other law enforcement agencies across the state: patrol cars. Finding them, securing them and getting them delivered in a timely manner is an ongoing problem. The county is already five patrol cars short of the current budget year.

In the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, the sheriff’s office is looking for a total of 13 new vehicles: one for animal control, one for the narcotics division, a SWAT van and ten pursuit-classified patrol cars. These ten additional patrol cars are in addition to the five patrol cars that were budgeted and approved for this budget year, but never arrived to join Hiatt’s fleet.

With five still pending, next year’s order of ten adds to those that have not arrived. Rhonda Nix of the county’s finance office said one or two of those cars could still arrive. The county is proactively securing budget room next year for ten more.

Cars budgeted but don’t arrive don’t go against their budget, the county doesn’t pay for undelivered items. However, these funds are not available to the sheriff as he sees fit and cannot be freely spent as the cars have not arrived.

“We see what you see on a daily basis when you go to stores and try to buy things. We find that in law enforcement, we try to order law enforcement equipment, and whatever it is, the long delays are astronomical,” Barker told the board.

Nix said the Sheriff’s Association is also struggling to acquire new vehicles. The chief deputy added, “I’ll tell you this, when the State Highway Patrol is going to order 2,400 cars, you know as well as I do who’s going to get preference. You have Winston-Salem who can command 200 at a time, so of course that’s an extra thing we’re fighting against.

Buying a new car or truck these days can be very complicated, even for Jane Q. Citizen. “You can’t even buy a van,” Commissioner Mark Marion observed. That’s why so many county vehicles find second and third lives. The SWAT van that is requested in the new budget replaces a late 1990s vehicle that the emergency services had surplused.

Supply chain issues are preventing the patrol vehicles the county wants from arriving, and expectations have already been adjusted. “It was a real struggle; we even changed the wording to “pursuit rated vehicles”. I can’t ask for Charger or Durango, that’s basically what we get.

The county uses a rental program which, according to Nix, “if not for the supply chain issues, it’s a good idea.” She said a three-year lease plan is good because: it reduces miles, vehicle turnover is safer for MPs, there is less downtime for repairs on older cars and vehicles hold more equity when trading.

A need for speed is what comes to mind when you think of an officer in pursuit. While it’s true that police chase vehicles are supposed to be faster than the ones they’re chasing, they also have better shock absorbers, brakes, suspension, and acceleration than a stock vehicle found in a parking lot. “You can definitely tell the difference when you drive it,” added Sheriff Steve Hiatt.

All MPs are required to be in pursuit-classified vehicles, the council assured. There are members of the sheriff’s office who aren’t chasing classified cars, but they have jobs that shouldn’t find them in a high-speed chase down US 52 at over 125 mph.

Commissioner Van Tucker asked: “What’s the difference between a car going 140 or say 124 mph? While we’re waiting for a charger, can’t we buy something else? In short, there are other cars than those listed that are eligible, including the Ford Interceptor and the Chevy Tahoe, the latter of which would have been far too expensive to consider.

“We’re not just talking about prosecutions; we are talking about emergency traffic. If you are in Mount Airy and receive a domestic violence call, this office will handle emergency traffic, 10-18, to Lowgap. We need to equip assistants with the right equipment to do the job.

“As deputy chief, if it was my sister in a domestic situation, if I was the resident, I would want the officer to be in the most capable vehicle possible. We’re not talking about Maserati or things like that. We want them to have the right equipment to do the job.

Getting the car doesn’t mean the problems are fixed, they just put cars marked up and on the road that were requested two years ago. Also, “We have a van that we are ready to put on the road for detention. We have it, it’s rented, it’s scratched, but I’m missing the cage. The protective cage that separates the driver from the passengers is a critical element, “it has been on order for eight months”.

Having a car that can get there quickly is good, the new budget wants to ensure that when MPs arrive at the scene they can document the incident. The desire is to “create a safe space for the officer and can help steer the county away from legal trouble,” Barker said.

“One video can make all the difference in the world,” he said when it came to protecting deputies, the department and the county from potential lawsuits. With camera footage, the “he said – she said” element of the interaction can be eliminated.

Having this equipment standard and in working order will ultimately make the difference. There are six on-board cameras that have reached the end of the line, the board has been told. Another local service was changing their cameras and sent an email saying they had extra parts. “We picked them up and made in-house repairs to keep these cameras operational.”

Replacing these cameras that have aged will once again provide an additional layer of security for the officer, the citizen and the county. Chief Deputy Barker told the commissioners that there was “a need and also a desire to have operational on-board cameras in all patrol cars”.

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