Sheriff Joe Berlin is proud of his department’s performance after a month on the job.
“We’ve been running since Day 1,” he told local media at a wide-ranging press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
But getting out of the starting blocks wasn’t easy, Berlin admitted, because the previous administration left some stumbling blocks in their path.
“When we went in, it was tough getting off the ground,” said Berlin, who was voted in to replace three-term sheriff Alex Hodge. “The computers were wiped clean, there were no files, there was nothing in the office … Usually there’s a smooth transition, but for some reason this wasn’t a smooth transition. I don’t really want to elaborate.”
But he did want to talk about the job his department is doing despite some of those early obstacles. With full staffs in the Narcotics Division and Criminal Investigations Division, there had already been 20 felony drug arrests after barely a month on the job and investigators are working more than 100 felony cases.
“And we haven’t even gotten started good,” Berlin said of those numbers.
Berlin has also added one deputy per shift since he took over, up from three to four, and he has plans to soon add a fifth deputy to each shift. He’s proud that he was able to do that by cutting unnecessary expenses, not with a budget increase.
“I got a copy of the budget before I started and saw places to save,” Berlin said, adding that he cut “in excess of $100,000” in salaries from the budget he inherited. “There was a lot of overspending in ranked personnel.”
Most people in those positions left the department on their own, Berlin said, and that left more money for deputies. Cutting out office workers and utilizing grant-writer Lance Chancellor have helped keep plenty of boots on the ground for the department.
Deputies have been getting 100 percent of their overtime paid by grants for working special traffic enforcement details to stop impaired driving and to enforce seatbelt safety. That’s led to more than a dozen DUI arrests and 132 citations for seatbelt violations, including 18 for failing to properly restrain a child in vehicles. There have also been nine drug arrests, six other felony arrests and four fugitives apprehended as a result of those grants.
“We’re vigorously working to curb impaired driving,” Berlin said. “We’re trying to keep the community safer.”
A second victim’s advocate, Regina Newton, will be added to the department in March to join Priscilla Sims, he said. The department will be responsible for only 20 percent of their compensation thanks to other grants secured by Chancellor.
Having plenty of personnel to go on calls helps Berlin meet his goal of running a “proactive department,” he said.
“We go to the problem, we don’t wait for the problem to come to us,” he said. “We’ve got good leaders that know how to do this job.”
With 23 years of law enforcement experience, that part of the job was an easy transition for Berlin, who worked most of his career with the Laurel Police Department.
“I knew what to expect with that,” he said. “The business part takes a little getting used to … but I know how to watch spending money.”
They’re going hard after drugs because burglaries and other crimes are often “a derivative of drugs,” he said. “Meth can make a person something that wouldn’t be.”
The response from the public in his first month of service has been “phenomenal,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t let it go to your head.’” There’s no danger of that happening, he added. “We work for the people.”
The reception from local and area law enforcement agencies has also been good, though one agency is “not happy” with him because of the number of officers who left there to come work for him. He was referring to the LPD, which lost approximately 10 officers to the JCSD. “We’re going to work with every law enforcement agency,” Berlin said. “We all need to work together.”
The inmate litter pickup detail and school-zone patrols are back now and the department’s website and jail docket will be back up and running late this week or early next week, he said. Berlin said he is working to get body-cams for his deputies, but he’s looking at funding alternatives.
“We may do a lease-purchase … or possibly get a donation,” he said.
Berlin also answered a question about equipment and other items that had reportedly been given to area agencies by Hodge.
“All of the equipment that was supposedly given away has been returned,” he said, “other than some office supplies, and we’ll just take a loss on those.”