For Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton, this weekend was one for starting yet another report.
Like other members of the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association, Sheriff Bratton is preparing a compilation of his department’s operations, including its responsibilities in the event of a security problem at the Davis Besse Nuclear Power Station.
Behind the facts and figures of his report will be a passion Sheriff Bratton has for an issue that’s been weighing on his mind for the better part of a year – the state’s deteriorating financial situation and its impact on local law enforcement.
Sheriff Bratton’s report, along with those of other BSSA members, will be presented to an eight-member committee of sheriffs who will condense the material for the association’s representative on a yet to be formed panel that will be studying the role of the Ohio Highway Patrol and its working relationship with other law enforcement departments.
Meeting last Monday in Columbus, BSSA members agreed to prepare reports in the hope the association can present a coherent message to the panel.
“We’re trying to get away from duplication of services,” Sheriff Bratton said. “Also, we want to look at everybody’s role so there is an understanding of that.”
The state’s transportation budget bill, which was signed Wednesday by Gov. Ted Strickland, includes a provision to establish a State Highway Patrol Mission Review Task Force.
The task force is to include 14 persons, including the director of public safety or his designee; three members each of the House and Senate; one representative each from the Buckeye State Sheriff’s Association; Fraternal Order of Police; Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police; Ohio State Trooper’s Association, and three persons representing the public.
“The Task Force shall review the operations and functions of the State Highway Patrol as they relate to all other police entities in this state,” the bill says. “The Task Force shall identify services of the State Highway Patrol that overlap with those of other police entities, opportunities to focus or consolidate current operations, and ways to improve operational efficiency.”
A written report of the task force findings is to be submitted within a year to the governor and leaders of the House and Senate.
An incident last winter on a stretch of the Ohio Turnpike in Lake Township may exemplify the situation between the Highway Patrol and local police departments, said Mark Hummer, the township police chief.
A vehicle with a man, woman, and two children – one an infant – was stopped in the westbound passing lane on an overpass.
The adults in the vehicle were ignoring Highway Patrol troopers who were first on the scene and had alerted patrol officers at district and state headquarters.
Chief Hummer said he, fearing for the safety of the children in the vehicle, alerted Wood County’s Special Response Team to be on stand-by status.
The situation dragged on for nearly 2 hours and the Highway Patrol’s Special Response Team had also been alerted but would have had to be transported by helicopter from the Columbus area, Chief Hummer said.
“It was about 10 degrees and I was worrying about the effect on the infant,” he said.
When the man in the vehicle was observed burning the pages of what appeared to be a bible, Chief Hummer said he directed the county’s SRT, which includes officers from the township police department, to enter the vehicle.
There were no injuries, he said, and the people in the vehicle were safely removed.
Chief Hummer said he had a rather terse conversation by radio with the Highway Patrol command officer in Columbus after he directed the county SRT to take action but believes the situation could have been handled in less than an hour at the local level.
“At the ground level we didn’t have an issue with the troopers on the scene,” he said. “We coordinated very well with each other.”
Sheriff Bratton said his department was able to investigate and close a theft case at Camp Perry two or three years ago even though the camp is state property and technically under the jurisdiction of the Highway Patrol.
“We apprehended the guy right away,” the sheriff said, adding the sheriff’s department also handled a rape case years go at the camp.
“At a meeting a Highway Patrol officer told me, `We can fly in an investigator,’ “ the sheriff said. “But we’re going to be the first responder and we have investigators who can be at the scene quickly. In my opinion, they’re becoming territorial just to generate statistics so they can cay look how busy they are.”
Chief Hummer and Sheriff Bratton both praise the Highway Patrol for its work on traffic safety enforcement and said the push for expanding its role appears to be coming out of Columbus.
“To me there is no better organization for handling traffic crashes,” the sheriff said. “We have excellent deputies that can do it but it’s really great when the patrol can handle crashes in our county because that lets our deputies be available for service to residents. A traffic crash can go anywhere from an hour to three or four hours depending on whether there are injuries. I could not survive out here without them to assist with crashes.”
Chief Hummer said his department has seen the number of crash reports it processes triple after the Highway Patrol closed its post on Lemoyne Road in Walbridge and opened a new post near Bowling Green. In addition to its former territory, the new post is also responsible for patrolling Henry County.
Sheriff Bratton questions why the state’s polygraph program, which had handled by the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation under the Attorney General’s office, has been transferred to the Highway Patrol.
He also said the Highway Patrol’s role in homeland security needs to be re-evaluated.
“I don’t question that they need to be involved but think they’ve gone way over what their role should be,” he said.
Lt. Tony Bradshaw, a spokesperson for the Highway Patrol, said he hadn’t read the language in the budget bill calling for the task force.
“We’re unaware of any need for the examination,” he said, adding questions should be directed to State Senator Steve Buehrer, who inserted the provision.
Senator Buehrer couldn’t be reached for comment.
The state, in recent budgets, has weaned the Highway Patrol from its traditional funding source of gasoline taxes and opted to use that money instead for roads. That loss of revenue was partially offset by closing a tax offset for fuel wholesalers.
In 2008, patrol troopers statewide recovered 721 stolen vehicles valued at $5.2 million, resulting in 555 apprehensions.
Troopers also made 5,244 misdemeanor criminal arrests and 1,540 felony arrests. They also apprehended 4,467 persons who were wanted on outstanding warrants – 967 of which were wanted felons.