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District Attorney on Navassa PD: “The lights are on and no one is home”

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 3:12 PM EDT
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NAVASSA, N.C. (WECT) - New details are emerging about the extreme difficulty the Navassa Police Department has had in recent years recruiting and retaining enough officers to staff their police department.

The district attorney and Brunswick County sheriff are urging town council to contract with the sheriff’s office to provide deputies dedicated to patrolling the town, but town officials have yet to accept that proposal.

“The appearance of a police department is worse than not having one at all. Because, to some extent, it creates expectations in the community’s mind that we have something there that simply [isn’t],” District Attorney Jon David told Mayor Willis and two other town council members who attended a meeting on the topic Wednesday night.

“So I would encourage - whatever you do - to make a decision to move forward either with hiring a number of people, recruiting and retaining and training. Qualified people. Which has proved problematic, and I think that’s going to be difficult. Or work towards and negotiate an agreement sooner rather than later, because as of today the lights are on and no one’s home. We don’t have a police department,” David said.

Sheriff John Ingram said addressing the staffing issue is a matter of public safety.

“You haven’t had that 24/7 protection in a number of years, which the criminal element knows,” Ingram told the audience. “They know when you have officers here and when you don’t. And when the response times are going to be excessive.”

While the staffing problem is even worse now after the departure of the department’s last remaining officer on July 26, this is not a new issue. David noted that he’d met with town officials in August of 2020, proposing they contract with the BCSO to provide dedicated patrols in the town limits all day, every day.

The town declined to act on that suggestion, and have since lost the few officers they had left. David and Ingram indicated Navassa is not offering high enough salaries to compete with surrounding law enforcement agencies for officers.

When no one is on duty at Navassa PD, BCSO deputies respond to calls there, but response times can be 12-15 minutes or longer for deputies assigned to patrol the entire county, rather than dedicated specifically to the town.

The Navassa Police Department has 4 officers when fully-staffed, but hasn’t been able to maintain that number of officers for quite some time. Within the last year, one officer who was working for Navassa police left to join the Wilmington Police Department, and another joined the Northwest Police Department. A part time police officer also left after being with the department for six years also left in December. Then, on June 8, Navassa Police Chief Preston Howell, who’d been with department since 2013, resigned. In recent months, he’d been running the department by himself. And he was there Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., which Jon David noted are not peek crime hours.

Stephen Conrad was hired the day after Howell resigned, but abruptly left the department July 26, the day before the arrest of a man accused of posing as a Navassa police officer was publicly announced.

Officials have been very tight lipped about how Eric Cinotti, who was not a certified law enforcement officer, gained possession of a Navassa police cruiser that he was driving when he showed up at a police call in the neighboring jurisdiction of Leland. But Navassa Mayor Eulis Willis may have shed some light on what happened in an interview with reporters after the meeting Wednesday night.

“We had two interim policeman. Our chief had to leave about a month ago. So we had two interim.... one interim policeman… I’ll put it that way, and one guy decided he wanted to be a policeman. And it didn’t work out for the good of the town or the people that was involved, and so now we are without any police protection at all,” Willis said.

Some members of the audience said they deserved police protection, and not having a functioning department was an invitation for criminals to target their town. There were more than 1,600 calls for police service in the town last year, and 652 calls so far this year. Some of those cases have been serious crimes, like rapes and stabbings, that need a fully-staffed police department for a proper response.

“I’m concerned about the end product that we’re getting in our court system, the quality of those cases relative to what I see in other agencies, and victims shouldn’t have to suffer because one agency showed up over another,” Jon David explained.

Additionally, officials were concerned about the lack of oversight for the evidence locker in Navassa’s now-dormant police department.

Sheriff Ingram said his department could have a deputy on duty in Navassa around the clock for about $265,000 a year, which officials indicated was roughly what the town already had budgeted for their police force. There were not enough Navassa Town Council members present to vote on the proposed contract with the BCSO, but Mayor Willis indicated they would try to make a vote happen soon.

“Some of the council members that should’ve been here tonight and would’ve been here tonight, some of them are going to be involved in elections soon and they want to stay away from anything controversial. Or they perceive as controversial. But anytime you working and you’re trying to help the people, it’s not gonna be easy all the time,” Mayor Willis said. Several audience members and at least one town council member made it clear that ideally, they like having their own police force.

If council did agree to a contract arrangement with the BCSO, it could be done on a year-to-year basis, and the town would still have the option of opening their own police department again in the future.

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