More MS news articles for June 2002

Sheriff faces suspension for strange behavior

Friday, May 31, 2002
By Don Lowery
Morris News Service
Athens Banner-Herald

The Effingham County commissioners and the Georgia Sheriffs Association want state officials to investigate whether Sheriff Jay Space -- diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last spring -- is capable of continuing as the county's top lawman.

Citing reoccurring complaints from local officials and residents about Space's conduct, the sheriffs association has asked Gov. Roy Barnes for an investigation into the sheriff's ability to perform his duties. The commissioners are supporting the request.

The governor's staff Thursday requested more information from county officials. Space did not return repeated requests for comments.

''I'm not blaming Jay as a person,'' said Commission Chairman Phillip King. ''I think it is the illness and the medicine he's taking that is causing the problems. I feel sorry for him but the commission has to do what is best for the county.''

Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association, said an impartial investigation could benefit Space.

''The association is composed of sheriffs and Jay is a colleague. The last thing we want to do is cause problems for a fellow lawman,'' said Norris from his office in Stockbridge. ''They will be able to determine whether there is a problem or whether it is just politics.''

Space took medical leave for about two months last spring, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and started taking treatment for the debilitating disease.

He held a news conference June 11, 2001 to say he was coping with the symptoms, was returning to work and intended to serve the remainder of his term, which expires in 2004.

Despite Space's reassurances, county officials said they continued to hear reports that Space sometimes appeared physically impaired. County officials met with Space and representatives of the sheriffs association about three months ago to discuss their concerns.

Particularly concerned about Space's ability to drive, the commissioners offered to provide him with a driver and asked that he consider working at home. County officials say the commission -- which funds the sheriff's department -- would be legally liable if Space caused a traffic accident while at work.

Space refused to change his driving habits but agreed at that time to get a letter from his physician saying he was able to drive. King said Space produced a doctor's letter more than two months after the meeting.

But two recent incidents in which Space allegedly became irate raised commissioners concerns again. When Space was stopped for speeding in Port Wentworth on April 23, he allegedly snatched open the policeman's car door and unleashed a verbal barrage. Then he allegedly disrupted a May 21 commission meeting, interrupting county officials and yelling at them.

County officials and Emanuel County Sheriff Tyson Stephens, president of the sheriffs association, said they have heard about the traffic stop in which a Port Wentworth policeman stopped Space's personal car at the Interstate-95 interchange on Ga. 21.

The policeman said Space was heading southbound on Ga. 21 at 78 mph in a 55 mph speed zone as he entered Port Wentworth and slowed to 60 mph in a 45 mph speed zone as he approached the interchange.

A dash-mounted camera in the cruiser recorded some of the traffic stop but nearly all of the heated exchange reported by the Port Wentworth officer was not captured on video or audio. The video provides only a ''windshield view'' of the stop and the audio reception is minimal, often recording no conversations.

The video does include an on-scene conversation between the Port Wentworth officer and his supervisor in which the officer claims that Space walked up to the cruiser, snatched open the driver's door and yelled at the policeman.

Standing in front of his cruiser, the officer is captured on video telling his supervisor, ''I don't care who he is He doesn't have the authority to come snatch open my car door.''

©opyright 2002 Athens Banner-Herald