More MS news articles for June 2002

Editorial: Public safety over politics

Sunday, June 2, 2002
Savannah Morning News

THERE HAS been a misguided push on the Chatham County Commission to combine the sheriff's department and county police department under the supervision of the elected sheriff.

Fortunately, that urge has been subdued. For now.

But if commissioners need more evidence that such a merger is a bad idea, then they should look no further than Effingham County. Officials there are struggling with the question of whether Sheriff Jay Space has the ability to continue in his post despite his illness. It should serve as an example of why having an elected official run a combined law enforcement agency is a bad idea.

Mr. Space, who serves as Effingham County's top law enforcement officer, was diagnosed last spring with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, often debilitating disease that affects the central nervous system. Symptoms can include a lack of coordination, which can affect walking and driving, as well as cause vision problems. Some people with MS suffer a decline in their ability to think and reason, and can suffer sudden paralysis.

The sheriff has been taking medication and, after a two-month medical leave, returned to work last summer with plans to finish his term, which ends in 2004.

Battling such a disease is not easy, and everyone can sympathize with him. Indeed, Mr. Space should be commended for his devotion to his post.

Unfortunately, fulfilling his duty isn't easy. Some residents and officials in Effingham County have complained that Mr. Space's physical problems are affecting his job performance. In particular, they say he has been driving at excessive speeds and had an angry confrontation with a Port Wentworth police officer who stopped him for speeding.

Commissioners, worried about the county's liability if Mr. Space caused an accident while on the job, offered to provide the sheriff with a driver. He refused.

In addition, Mr. Space became belligerent during a recent County Commission meeting and "presented himself in a manner that made everyone very uncomfortable," Commission Chairman Phillip King said.

As a result, commissioners and the Georgia Sheriffs Association have properly asked Gov. Roy Barnes to investigate Mr. Space's ability to perform his job. The Sheriffs Association wants to make sure that politics is not playing a role in the complaints over Mr. Space's job performance.

Mr. Barnes has asked the County Commission for additional information before he agrees to get involved. The governor can appoint a three-person committee to investigate the complaints and recommend whether the sheriff should be suspended. If that is the committee's recommendation, the governor could suspend the sheriff for up to 90 days and ask the chief judge of the Superior Court in Effingham County to appoint someone to assume the sheriff's duties during that time.

This problem cannot be remedied simply or quickly. And it shows exactly why Chatham County doesn't need an elected official running law enforcement. Currently, if Chatham County Police Chief Tom Sprague is stricken with a debilitating illness that affects his physical or mental ability to work, County Manager Russ Abolt can act immediately to remedy the situation. The same holds true for Savannah Police Chief Dan Flynn, who answers to City Manager Michael Brown.

But Sheriff Al St. Lawrence doesn't have an immediate supervisor. He answers to the public every four years. If he becomes ill or otherwise is unable to do his job, but won't relinquish the post, the County Commission would have to go through the same process Effingham County is pursuing. In the meantime, a mentally or physically debilitated person would be in charge of law enforcement. That's not the responsible way to handle public safety in any community.

No one can be sure if Mr. Space's ability to do the job has been compromised by his health problems or if he just had a couple of bad days on the job. Commissioners have attempted to accommodate him, both through the offer of a driver and by suggesting that he work from his home. He has refused, presenting a letter from a doctor attesting to his ability to drive.

But multiple sclerosis can get progressively worse. If Mr. Space is having trouble doing his job, his persistent refusal of reasonable accommodations from the commission isn't fair to the people of Effingham County. Mr. Space should consider getting a second physician's opinion of his mental and physical abilities. He should step aside if he is unable to adequately perform his job.

At the same time, proponents of combining the sheriff and police departments in Chatham County should use the Effingham County experience as a warning of what could -- and shouldn't -- happen here.

Copyright 2001 Savannah Morning News