County council members on Tuesday agreed they, too, needed more time to mull over an inter-local agreement to extend police protection from the Knox County Sheriff's Department to the city of Bicknell.
The agreement — one county and Bicknell elected officials have been working on for months — was first presented to the public at a Bicknell City Council meeting last week. The majority of those who attended the standing-room only event were adamantly against it, believing police protection in Bicknell would suffer as a result.
The public discourse during that Bicknell City Council meeting — which digressed often into yelling and name-calling — seems to have sent everyone's heads spinning.
Councilman Harry Nolting said since conversations on such an inter-local agreement began this spring, he'd been on board, believing it the “best chance” for securing adequate police protection in Bicknell.
But the disagreement and fighting in Bicknell, he said, has left him confused.
“I'm concerned about sending our forces into a hostile environment,” he said. “They're not the bad guys, and I don't want them to be seen as such.”
Nolting also challenged both Bicknell residents and elected officials to do better.
“We live in a representative government,” he told the audience at City Hall, 201 Vigo St. “We elect the people that we trust, and they are charged with the responsibility of making decisions.
“Who hollers the loudest,” he said, “doesn't rule.”
Residents in Bicknell, however, say they're only asking for a little bit of time, three months to be exact, the same amount of time Bicknell Mayor Estabrook had to strike the deal currently on the table.
They say they have a plan that could see the Bicknell Police Department revived.
Bicknell resident Lydia Duncan said Estabrook was “given three months to do nothing.”
“The citizens deserve the same amount of time to explore our options,” she said. “It's time for Bicknell to change course, and that doesn't involve being forced into an inter-local agreement.”
The agreement would essentially eliminate the Bicknell Police Department save but one officer who would act as a code enforcement officer. City officials would then pay annually $326,000 to the county for the addition of four county deputies.
Sheriff Doug Vantlin, who did not attend Tuesday's meeting, 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.
Bicknell elected officials say they are exhausted from fighting the same battle time and again. Starting pay for a BPD officer is $36,000, yet they've never been able to afford health insurance for city employees.
They've spent years, Estabrook said, training officers only to watch them leave for more enticing offers elsewhere.
The department, too, has been plagued with legal troubles.
Bicknell elected officials there fired one officer last week; former lieutenant Kevin Carroll plead guilty to a charge of criminal recklessness following an incident more than a year ago.
In April, then chief Terry Stremming was placed on administrative leave after he faced a charge of battery to a public official for an incident at the prosecutor's office in Vincennes.
Bicknell only has just one officer left.
“Policing has been difficult in Bicknell for decades,” Estabrook said. “We desire quality law enforcement for the city, and we believe this is the best choice we have.
“But we're fundamentally changing what my city has known as normal for the last 50 years,” he said. “Even though some will say the opposite, we have tried. We're just now at a place where we have to try something different.”
Bicknell council members Rod Mullins and Butch Byrer reiterated what Estabrook said, saying they've watched for years as police officers have come and gone in Bicknell.
It's a fight they're ready to give up.
“It's time to try something new and quit beating the same dead horse,” Mullins said.
Byrer, likewise, pleaded for help.
“I hope you guys see our plight and help,” he said.
A handful of residents, however, say the current administration is part of the problem.
Duncan said the police department once had a long history of “lifers,” officers who started and eventually retired from the force. Since the current administration took over, she said, it's been a “revolving door” of officers and administrators.
She blames Estabrook for “micromanaging every aspect of government” and interjecting himself too much into police business.
Two other Bicknell residents, Stacy Carter and Wayne Beaman, also a retired fire chief, blame the current administration as well.
“We don't have an administration capable of managing a police department anyway,” Carter said.
But regardless of how Bicknell came to find itself in this pickle, county elected officials, most of them, at least, seem to feel obliged to help.
County commissioner Trent Hinkle thought they had a “responsibility” to the city of Bicknell.
The old temporary agreement between Bicknell and the county expired on Monday, so city officials now are hiring off-duty deputies to provide police protection.
Hinkle said when the commissioners take this inter-local agreement up again next week — they, too, tabled it last week — he's likely to vote in favor of it.
“Because if we don't do this, if we don't pass this agreement, Bicknell is left without a whole lot of police coverage at all,” he said. “And I find it difficult to comprehend that we would do that.”
Commission president Kellie Streeter, too, pointed out that the longer they wait, the more strapped county deputies would be. A handful of officers have been pulled off the roads and placed back into schools.
She considers the situation an “emergency in regards to public safety.”
“This agreement would protect us, cover Bicknell and maintain (existing) coverage, too,” she said.
Council president Bob Lechner agreed, saying the county would always respond to help “its neighbor.”
But he, too, thought the council needed more time to think it all over.
“I don't know the outcome of this,” he said of the proposed agreement, “but I don't think it would ever be the county's intent to ignore their neighbor in a time of need.”
County councilman Rich Chattin said he was in favor of the agreement and had spoken at length in recent days with Bicknell residents about it. Most of them, he said, especially once they have all the information, are on board.
Councilman David Culp, however, said the opposite. He'd talked to many who weren't in favor of it.
He called it “one of the messiest challenges” that had ever come before him as a legislator, and he told Bicknell officials it should be their problem to work it out. He suggested they take a “U-turn” and hash it out for themselves in a town hall-style meeting.
“Be respectful like you were here tonight. That's how you hammer it out,” he said.
Councilman Tim Crowley, however, said he was inclined to move forward. Sure, Bicknell might be able to put back together a department of officers, but without health insurance, a fact he found “ridiculous,” city officials are bound to find themselves in the same predicament.
But in looking at the 10 pages of notes he took Tuesday night, Crowley said his conscious was telling him to wait.
“I hate it when people kick the can down the road,” he said with a shake of his head, “and as much as everyone wants a resolution, I suggest we table it.
“I need some time to think about what we have heard tonight and reflect.”