NEW CUMBERLAND - Making good on a promise he made a year ago, Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher said his department has instituted zone patrols for better police coverage of the county.
The zone patrols have been in place for about two months, dividing the county into northern and southern halves. Fletcher said he believes the zone system will make for better, more efficient use of the department's 27 sworn officers.
"It's going to quicken the response time to answer calls," he said. "It's actually working well. Places are getting checked more often than they were. Businesses are being checked more equally."
Fletcher said he's also been getting positive feedback from the public. "People have told me, 'It seems like there have been more patrols in my area,' " he said.
Under the zone system, the county's northern half is everything north of state Route 8 and Gas Valley Road; the southern half is everything south of that boundary. As a result, Route 8 is patrolled by deputies from both zones.
Each shift has a four-man crew - two road deputies, a sergeant and a lieutenant - and, thus, each zone has one deputy assigned to it per shift, with the sergeant acting as a rover, Fletcher said. Zone assignments are made by the lieutenants, a new departmental rank that became effective Feb. 14.
Zone assignments are not set in stone, and officers may be rotated between zones or called on to help in the other zone when necessary. Especially on the night shift, it's important for deputies to switch zones at some point.
"It keeps you fresh," Fletcher said.
There was some resistance to zone patrols at first, Lt. Chuck Stanley said, but, so far, "It's been an easy transition."
Stanley said the northern zone - Newell, Chester, U.S. Route 30 - tends to be busier, so the zone system has had an equalizing effect. "It's given us more patrols for the southern zone, especially in New Manchester and New Cumberland Heights," he said.
Chief Deputy Art Watson said the zone system also makes for more accurate dispatching because dispatchers know which deputy is working in which area at any given time.
Fletcher began talking about instituting zone patrols at a series of public meetings in Newell last year, at a time when Newell residents were complaining about an increase in crime and a lack of patrols.
Fletcher said his decision to boost patrols in Newell in the spring of 2013 was separate from the decision to create zone patrols.
Other changes Fletcher has introduced since becoming sheriff in January 2013 include:
* Promoting five officers - four sergeants and Watson - to the rank of lieutenant.
* Creating a civilian division of 15 part-time officers who work as bailiffs and courthouse security officers; naming former jail administrator Thomas Cox as courthouse security administrator.
* Introducing a tip411 smartphone application that allows residents to make anonymous tips about suspected criminal activity.
* Making Deputy Christopher Waide a detective, thus doubling the size of the detective division.
* Hiring Dante Jeter as a deputy.
* Adding to the ranks of the Hancock County Sheriff's Reserve.
* Making plans to bring Project Lifesaver to Hancock County.