Lechner opposed but abstains from vote

County council members on Tuesday voted 5-1 to move forward with an inter-local agreement to provide police protection to the city of Bicknell.

Council members tabled the proposed agreement in August with plans to take it back up during their annual budget hearings. They wanted time to think it over, especially given that many Bicknell residents have been vocal in their opposition to it.

In the end, the majority of council members concluded that extending coverage from the Knox County Sheriff's Department into Bicknell the safest option.

Tim Crowley, a former judge, was the one last month who suggested tabling the inter-local agreement amid such upset from Bicknell residents. On Tuesday, he told his fellow council members that the opportunity to extend a more seasoned police force to Bicknell swayed his decision.

“One of the reasons I will vote for this is because I think bringing the detective aspect of the sheriff's department mitigates in favor,” he said. “One of the stories that I've heard, one that terrified me, was of a child that was molested, a 15-month-old child, and the only person the Bicknell police could muster to go and talk to the family was a reserve officer.

“I don't think we can afford to be doing something like that.”

The sheriff's department, he said, has “respected detectives” who are trained to handle such situations. Bicknell simply does not.

“And when it comes to something that serious,” he said, “we can't let people that aren't qualified be put in the position of doing an investigation that could affect the outcome of a trial.”

Council president Bob Lechner and member David Culp, however, said they couldn't support the agreement. Culp voted against it while Lechner opted to abstain.

Lechner expressed his concerns that the agreement wasn't ideal, not for the county and not for Bicknell. He said if in Bicknell Mayor Thomas Estabrook's shoes, he'd likely “do the same thing,” but he'd talked to too many people who are against it.

Initially, he said, he thought the agreement made sense, but he's talked to “no one else in support of this” besides Estabrook and members of the Bicknell City Council.

He'd talked to Bicknell residents, Vincennes residents, even one impassioned resident in Lawrenceville, Illinois, who felt so strongly about what he was reading in the Sun-Commercial that he drafted a hand-written letter to Lechner and sent it through the U.S. mail.

“I haven't talked with anybody, quite frankly, who is enthusiastic about this contract,” Lechner said.

He also eluded to conversations that have played out away from the public eye.

“Behind closed doors,” he said, “I've heard, 'Let's get it done and over with,' but when we make decisions in that manner, we oftentimes come to the wrong conclusion.”

In the end, however, he opted to abstain and not vote at all.

Culp told his fellow council members that he'd talked to “13 businesses, 7 law enforcement officials, at least 50 residents and received about 14 emails,” all of which said this agreement “wasn't the way to go.”

“I'm a councilman-at-large,” he said of his post, “and I have to listen to the people.”

The rest of the council members kept quiet during the rather brief discussion — during which they did not again take public comment — but cast votes in favor of the agreement.

That agreement, which is now officially in place as the council was the last government entity to approve it, essentially eliminates the Bicknell Police Department save but one officer.

That officer, Estabrook has said, will now largely serve as a code enforcement officer. The department's existing reserves, too, will remain on and be active, especially in the interim.

Estabrook has held fast to his position that this agreement is the best option for Bicknell in terms of law enforcement. The city has for years — and city council members agree — been plagued with trouble in attracting quality officers and keeping them. The pay is less than stellar, and city officials have never been able to offer health benefits.

Inevitably, officers have undergone the training they need to become police officers, on the city's dime, only to be lured away by more lucrative offers made from departments elsewhere.

Several Bicknell residents, however, have repeatedly pleaded with county elected officials to reject the agreement as they want to see the BPD saved. They are worried, too, about what will become of a city with no police department, specifically in terms of response times in the event that deputies aren't in the immediate area.

In return for police protection, city officials will pay annually $326,000 to the county for the addition of four county deputies.

Sheriff Doug Vantlin has said those new deputies, although never all at once, would be assigned primarily to Bicknell and a six-mile radius around the city, specifically the communities of Freelandville, Edwardsport, Bruceville and Ragsdale.

Estabrook, following Tuesday's vote, said he was thrilled to finally be able to move forward. The next step, he said, will be in sitting down with Vantlin to iron out the details of what BPD equipment — everything from guns to cruisers — will be transferred to the county. Per the agreement, Bicknell got a $50,000 credit for that equipment.

“It feels pretty good to finally have an agreement in place,” he said.

Estabrook, too, said the current arrangement, in which the county provides a nighttime officer and the city pays off-duty officers as necessary, will remain in place until the county is able to hire the four additional deputies.

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