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Cornelius police merger gets citizen support

Sheriff likes Lt. Gene Moss for chief in case of Ken Summers exit


If citizen support is any measure, the Cornelius Police Department is headed for a merger with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

There appeared to be unanimous support from the 20-some people attending Monday night’s town hall on the topic. And Saturday, 36 out of 40 who attended a town hall for Spanish speakers also supported the idea, according to Cornelius Mayor Jef Dalin.

Even Ken Summers, the current police chief, submitted his “humble recommendation” for a merger.

“Sometimes you just need to reboot,” he said.

When he arrived in Cornelius in November 2012, Summers said, he felt he was a perfect fit for the struggling, traumatized department. Its internal strife had gone public after four officers sent a letter to the city council accusing three of their colleagues of everything from “malicious untruthfulness” to corruption.

Summers stepped in after then-Chief Paul Rubenstein was placed on leave (he later retired) and began working with what he felt was a good team, he said.

“We started giving CPR to the Cornelius Police Department. There were times we thought we saw some color coming back in the cheeks. We got excited,” he said. “But some injuries are too deep. In my opinion, the issues we face in the Cornelius Police Department are terminal.”

The merger proposal from Sheriff Pat Garrett is a “perfect alternative,” he said.

A merger would provide the same or higher quality of service for Cornelius residents, as well as allowing them to retain local control and save a little bit of money, according to City Manager Rob Drake.

Cornelius officers would keep their own uniforms — blue rather than the brown of sheriff’s deputies — and their own patrol car design. The new arrangement would also provide more on-duty officers per shift and add a second Spanish-speaking officer, which is important in a city where roughly half the residents are Latino.

In addition, half of the city’s current officers would be reassigned to other teams in the sheriff’s office. This is important, given that there is such a deep, acrimonious divide in the department that two officers recently testified in court against a third, calling him untruthful.

Even with some officers transferring out, “there are more people who want to work in Cornelius than we have positions for,” Summers said.

Garrett said he would treat Cornelius like his other “special assignment” teams. The newcomers would probably have to commit to serve in Cornelius for at least one full year, he said, although ideally they would want to stay permanently.

Three sheriff’s deputies currently live in Cornelius and “would love the opportunity to put on a blue uniform ... because it’s much more attractive,” Summers joked.

One of the people leaving the department would be Summers, who will likely return to retirement when the sheriff installs one of his own employees as chief. Garrett’s current choice for that role is Lt. Gene Moss — a choice Summers applauds.

“He believes in face-to-face meetings,” said Summers, who noted that Moss uses words such as “relationships,” “accountability” and “grace.”

“People need grace,” Summers said, “whether it’s an offender in the community or an employee in the police department.”

Garrett would like a three-year contract from the city and Drake would like a six-month review that would allow Cornelius to nix the arrangement if it isn’t working.

Summers said they could craft such an “escape clause” that would make it easy to switch back. But he strongly believes the sheriff will give “such incredible service” that the city won’t want to go back.

Amid larger questions of cost and staffing, resident Trudy Howser wanted to make sure “the little things” didn’t get lost in a merger, such as the police chaplain, who has provided “a big service” to the community, she said.

Other community treasures were raised at Monday’s meeting, including annual events such as National Night Out, Children’s Day and Shop with a Cop, or how officers sometimes eat lunch with schoolchildren.

Garrett embraced them all, noting that the sheriff has already participated in several of those events. He asked residents to alert him to any other valuable traditions they want to maintain.

Cathy Small, a member of the city’s Community Oriented Policing Citizens Advisory Board, agrees with Summers that the Cornelius department needs “healing” and believes a merger can provide that.

“You can’t fix it when it’s so totally broken,” said Greg Harper, who also likes the arrangement’s potential “cost savings to taxpayers.”



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