By STEPHEN HUBA
Special to the Herald-Star
NEWELL - Progress, not perfection, was the message Tuesday from Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher to the people of Newell at a meeting about crime in the unincorporated community.
ANSWERING QUESTIONS — Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher addressed a questioner at Tuesday night’s meeting in Newell, while Newell Community Improvement Coalition officers Bev Enochs and Sue Thompson listened. -- Stephen Huba
The meeting at the Newell Lions Den was less heated than the one held in February in which residents aired their complaints and concerns about a rash of home burglaries and car break-ins in the normally quiet town.
"Last time, it was pitch forks and hot oil," Fletcher joked. "I'm seeing a lot more friendly faces this time around."
The Newell Community Improvement Coalition called the follow-up meeting to continue the dialogue between residents and the Hancock County Sheriff's Department.
"We are thrilled that you're here, and we are thrilled at the work that you've been doing," said Coalition Treasurer Sue Thompson.
The estimated 60 people who attended the meeting applauded Fletcher several times during the evening, including when Fletcher said the department has been increasing patrols in the area.
"Have you noticed?" he said.
Several people nodded and said, "Yes."
"For me, it was not a one-shot deal. I don't believe in that kind of law enforcement," Fletcher said. "Hopefully, there's going to be more of a law enforcement presence here."
Fletcher said his department is making progress, but much work remains to be done. When asked specifically about the home burglaries, Fletcher said, "We couldn't tie them all together. We're working on it."
Fletcher said some of the burglaries were the result of illegal drug activity in the area. "There should be help with the thefts from the drug arrests we've made ... but that's just a start," he said.
Fletcher was referring to a large drug sweep in Hancock County by local, state and federal authorities on April 4 in which 39 adults and one juvenile were arrested on multiple drug trafficking charges. The arrests were the result of a multi-state, six-month investigation by the Hancock-Brooke-Weirton Drug Task Force into the illegal sale of heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, marijuana and oxycodone in Hancock County.
While the investigation pre-dated his time in office, Fletcher said he pressed for more manpower and an expanded investigation upon taking office in January.
"The sheriff's department doesn't have enough manpower to handle all the drug enforcement," he said. Help had to come from surrounding departments and bordering states.
Help also had to come from the people, he said. "My biggest concern (at the last meeting) was getting the community involved in helping us help you," he said. "It's people like yourselves who understand there's a problem and want to do something to help."
Fletcher said he has noticed an increase in the number of reports and tips from the public. He cited a recent string of daytime burglaries in which the suspects and their vehicle have been described by several witnesses.
"They're texting us and they're calling us and it's working," he said. "We're building some good, solid leads. ... I've seen more community involvement recently than what I've seen in the past few months."
Fletcher said the public also was instrumental in the identification, and ultimate arrest, of the suspects in the Feb. 19 robbery of the Hancock County Savings Bank in New Cumberland.
Describing ways his department is trying to do more, Fletcher said:
- He has "tentative permission" to reassign two deputies to the road patrol but that he has not found a way to add personnel.
- He is getting ready to hire a deputy to fill a vacancy.
- He wants to increase the detective division, which currently has one officer (compared to five in the Weirton Police Department).
- He and his sergeants are developing a plan for instituting zone patrols.
- He has established "new rules and regulations" that, during certain times of the day, result in "more manpower on the street."
- The department has applied for a state grant that would put three officers in Hancock County elementary schools.
- The department is preparing to launch a website that will enable the public, through a "Tip 411" feature, to make anonymous tips via a computer or smartphone application.
Fletcher also addressed questions about school bus safety, vacant buildings, unkempt properties, traffic and parking enforcement, juvenile delinquency and missing persons.
"I want to thank you for what you've done," Newell resident Tom Powers said. "We in Newell appreciate it, and I hope you tell your deputies we're thankful for them."