Sheriff, commissioners spar over vehicles after deputy’s accident

Published 12:25 pm Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Polk County Sheriff&squo;s officer says the age of a patrol vehicle contributed to deputy Gary Cox&squo;s accident last week, a claim that has touched off a firestorm between county commissioners and the sheriff&squo;s office.

County officials deny the vehicle&squo;s age caused the crash, and say they have bought about a dozen vehicles for the sheriff&squo;s office the past couple years, but the sheriff&squo;s fleet has been battered by 11 accidents since 2006. They also question the sheriff&squo;s officer driver training.

Lt. Brent Jackson said in a WSPA Channel 7 interview last Friday that in his opinion a wreck involving deputy Gary Cox resulted from the age and high mileage (more than 108,000 miles) of the vehicle.

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Jackson said county manager Ryan Whitson called for him to be fired because of those comments. Whitson said he cannot respond because it is a personnel issue, but said only the sheriff can fire his officers.

At a county meeting Monday night commissioners and sheriff Chris Abril spent more than an hour discussing Jackson&squo;s claim, along with other issues relating to Abril&squo;s administration, including turnover and gas consumption.

&dquo;Today I received a call from county manager Ryan Whitson requesting that I terminate Lt. Brent Jackson for comments he made to the media regarding the safety of our cars that we drive,&dquo; Sheriff Abril told commissioners. &dquo;First of all, Brent spoke directly on my behalf and I want to explain to each of you the concern we have with our vehicles.&dquo;

Abril said his department has too many high mileage vehicles and he is not getting the funding needed to replace them quickly enough. He said the department under former sheriff David Satterfield faced the same issue.

&dquo;It is no secret that we do have many cars here at the Polk County Sheriff&squo;s Office with over 100,000 miles on them, and some do even have over 150,000 miles,&dquo; Abril said.

Commissioner Tom Pack rejected Abril&squo;s claim that the county is not supplying new vehicles. He said the county provided the sheriff&squo;s office last year six new cars, five used vehicles, and one low mileage car previously used by the county manager, and so far this year has given another new vehicle. &dquo;So, we are buying new vehicles,&dquo; Pack said.

Abril argued that since Whitson&squo;s arrival to the county, the sheriff&squo;s office has transferred three of their vehicles to other departments. Abril disagreed with Pack on several occasions. He said the county purchased only four new vehicles for his office along with six used vehicles.

According to the county finance office, the sheriff&squo;s department has received 13 vehicles since Abril took over in 2006. The list includes three new vehicles purchased under the prior administration, six used vehicles and four more new vehicles.

County commissioners said the county purchased five used N.C. Highway Patrol and Columbus police vehicles because the sheriff&squo;s office wrecked so many cars the county had to purchase used vehicles.

According to county commissioner minutes from May 7, 2007, a 2006 patrol car was totaled and Sheriff Abril wanted to purchase a highway patrol car with 80,000 miles. All commissioners said they would prefer to buy a new car, but agreed they had no choice given the high number of wrecked cars. Commissioner Warren Watson at the time said he thought the sheriff&squo;s office should consider attending driving school. County officials say the sheriff&squo;s office has attended only one of six safety meetings the county has held since March of 2007. They add that the jail transport officer is the only sheriff&squo;s office employee who attended a behavior driving course arranged by the county.

Since Dec. 2007, the sheriff&squo;s office has been involved in 11 accidents, two of them the fault of another vehicle, according to county insurance reports. Four of the accidents involved collisions with deer and one involved a collision with a cow.

The accident on Friday involving deputy Cox occurred after he ran off the road and hit a tree while responding to a breaking and entering call in progress in Green Creek. He was pinned in the vehicle and had to be extricated and flown by helicopter to Spartanburg Regional Hospital.

According to the N.C. Highway Patrol police report, Cox was traveling 75 m.p.h. in a 55 m.p.h. zone on Chesnee Highway, a speed that both the highway patrol and county commissioners agree was appropriate given the circumstances.

Whitson said Monday that nowhere in the highway patrol&squo;s investigation of Cox&squo;s accident does it blame the condition of the vehicle for the accident. Cox was released from Spartanburg Regional Medical Center later on Friday and is recovering at home.

The discussion over the sheriff&squo;s office fleet ended with commissioners agreeing to purchase three new sheriff vehicles already planned for next year&squo;s budget and to give the sheriff&squo;s office the county manager&squo;s former vehicle, a police outfitted Crown Victoria that has approximately 6,000 miles. Once those new vehicles arrive, the sheriff is to surplus the top four high mileage vehicles and take the revenue from selling those cars to paint the new cars black and white to match the rest of the fleet.

Commissioners also agreed to purchase a transport vehicle with money gained from selling four other surplused sheriff&squo;s office vehicles, an animal control box and a recreation department truck.

Sheriff Abril questioned why the county manager makes vehicle purchases for the sheriff&squo;s office since the county is supposed to only allocate funding and let Abril spend the money. He said he can get a better deal on cars. Commissioners responded that Whitson is in charge of buying vehicles for all departments, and he does get the lowest prices available.