Columbus to add another police officer immediately

Published 10:07 pm Monday, April 25, 2016

By Leah Justice

Multiple and concurrent crimes in the Columbus area on the morning of March 31, including a murder and a high-speed chase of a stolen car caused Columbus Town Council to fast track the hiring of an additional police officer.

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Council met Thursday, April 21 and decided to transfer one of its St. Luke’s Hospital officers to be a road officer for the town and to hire a reserve officer to work at the hospital.

The discussion for the need of an additional police officer began during a budget retreat on Feb. 25, prior to the March 31 crimes. Columbus Police Chief Chris Beddingfield told council at the retreat that calls for service doubled between 2011 and 2015. Currently the Columbus Police Department has eight officers including the chief, but two of the seven regular officers serve St. Luke’s Hospital and are not used for service calls for the town.

Sgt. Scott Hamby told council at the February retreat that it is hard for officers to patrol alone. He said that a single officer can have complications when answering calls, there could be multiple calls happening at the same time and an officer cannot respond alone to all emergency calls. Council was also told that surrounding agencies are short-handed and may or may not be able to assist Columbus.

The request in February was for two additional officers during next year’s budget, which begins July 1, so the town could have two officers for every shift to cover the town round the clock every day.

Councilman Mark Phillips put the item of police staffing on last Thursday’s agenda. Columbus Town Manager Tim Barth said after all the activity that occurred on March 31, he was asked to place the item on the agenda. Barth said he has not yet completed next year’s budget draft, but plans to make every effort to include an additional police officer in the budget since that was a number one priority at council’s budget work session.

Phillips said the issue has been on his mind since Beddingfield did his presentation at the budget meeting and then the events a few weeks ago took place.

“How close were we to being caught with our pants down that day?” Phillips asked Beddingfield about March 31.

Beddingfield answered, “We were caught with our pants down that day.”

Beddingfield said there’s no way to plan for a day like March 31. He said he used to think the town needed more officers at night, but that’s not the case anymore. He explained on the morning of March 31 the town was dispatched to a car wreck and when the officer gets arrived it was determined to be a shooting. Beddingfield said Columbus had one person on staff at the time and there were maybe four to five police officers on staff in the entire county to work the murder scene. Beddingfield said moments later there was a police chase that crashed inside Columbus town limits.

“We were just dead in the water,” Beddingfield said. “We didn’t have enough people.”

He spoke of all the activity going on that day that people don’t realize such as the high school, community college and hospital going on lock-down and the town didn’t have enough people to get them the information they needed because the police department had people working the scenes.

“If you have one officer on, when that one officer is busy we have nothing left,” Beddingfield told council.

He said he understands the funding is limited and the town needs other things such as infrastructure and needs for public works. He also said having one officer on duty is a “little bit of a liability.”

Phillips said he read in the report that Columbus had a couple of officers who were off that day who, thankfully, came in. Phillips said there are more people coming into Columbus with the Tryon International Equestrian Center and he would love somehow to at least get one more officer, if not two more officers.

Councilman Josh Denton, a former law enforcement officer, said when he was working years ago there were two county deputies working the whole county and after 1 or 2 a.m. Saluda didn’t have an officer and a lot of the times Columbus didn’t have an officer on duty. Denton said an officer could be working a domestic in Green Creek and if there’s a fight in Sunny View, that officer is “in a mess.”

“If you had two calls at one time there was no protection in the county,” Denton said.

Beddingfield said in the almost 10 years he’s been employed with Columbus the town has added only one officer (except the two specifically for the hospital) and that one was paid for at first through a grant.

Columbus Mayor Eric McIntryre said the town knows there’s basically a need for two more officers. He said Barth and the finance director are working on the budget, but that won’t be ready for another month. McIntyre asked if there’s any way the town can pull money from the police department budget to get in reserves until the town can work something out for next year’s budget.

Beddingfield said he could hire a reserve in about a week. He said he would move an officer from the hospital to the town as road patrol and place a reserve at the hospital.

Beddingfield said with another full-time officer, there will just be a few hours where there won’t be two officers at a time on duty.

Council plans to go ahead and hire an additional officer immediately and approve a budget amendment for where the money is coming from during its May meeting.

The base salary for a police officer in Columbus is $28,808 and including benefits is $41,186.