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Sheriffs visit another step on road to police merger


WCSO, Cornelius Police Department meet to explore partnership

A police partnership between Cornelius and Washington County seems closer to reality.

Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett and two of his deputies attended a June 19 meeting of Cornelius’ Community Oriented Policing Citizen Advisory Board (COPCAB) — the second official meeting on the topic since the merger idea was raised in May.

The groups discussed in detail how Cornelius officers would be blended, trained and managed under the Sheriff’s Office.

“The resources of the sheriff’s office are more than what we can offer you as a police department,” said Cornelius officer Craig Wellhouser. “They know that, and we know that.”

Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake said there are three requirements he believes must be met if this transition is to happen: It can’t cost more for the citizens of Cornelius; the current Cornelius police chief, Ken Summers, must remain as chief; and the city’s officers would wear Cornelius uniforms and drive Cornelius police cars.

“Your officers will be your officers,” assured WCSO Undersheriff Jeff Mori. “We can’t take them all out of Cornelius. The officers that are working here would stay here. No one’s losing any money; no one’s pay is getting cut. We are just resourced differently.”

Mori said the sheriff’s office is independently run and operates in a Costco-like fashion, buying gas along with other resources in bulk to save finances.

The two agencies already work together, said Garrett, who wants the possible transition to benefit both sides. “They back us up and we back them up. But a closer partnership to increase efficiency is a benefit to us and the county.”

If Cornelius police officers were to join the sheriff’s office, they would have new mandatory trainings and the ability to join specialty teams such as the county SWAT unit.

The sheriff’s office would benefit by having more bench strength and identical training.

“When you train with someone, you know better how they’re going to respond,” said Garrett. “When doing something as simple as a building search, it ensures safety knowing other officers’ movement patterns and knowing the standardized approach to every situation.”

According to Garrett, the transfer of Cornelius officers into his agency would take six to eight weeks. It would also be possible for some Cornelius officers to transfer away from the city, Mori said, although at this early stage of the process, he doesn’t know how many might want to leave.

“We are taking it slow. It’s new for us and new for Cornelius,” said Garrett. “We don’t want to rush and then realize we’ve made a big mistake.”

Mori said the goal for both entities is to come to a decision before December.

“What does it do to Cornelius’ identity?” asked concerned COPCAB member Cathy Small. “Something will be lost, that’s how I feel.”

Garrett said he is sensitive to that issue. For one thing, the citizen’s advisory board would remain if the proposed transition goes through.

“And it doesn’t matter to me what Cornelius officers wear or what they drive,” he said, “but if it’s important to Cornelius, we are going to do it.”