Mathews County Sheriff Danny Howlett is in the final phase of incorporating the county’s animal control operations into his office.
The Mathews Board of Supervisors recently decided that the county could save money, streamline operations, and foster better record-keeping by placing animal control under the sheriff’s office, said Howlett.
Previously under the supervision of animal warden Ralph Horn, animal control has always reported directly to the county administrator, said Howlett, making the two-person operation "its own little department."
But in these tough economic times, he said it makes sense to combine operations where possible. Horn and his former deputy, Laura Carroll, will attend the basic training academy for deputies and become certified in jail and court security. This will enable them to serve jury summonses, be on duty during court proceedings, transport prisoners and mental health patients, and direct traffic for funerals and other occasions, cutting down on the need for part-time deputies, said Howlett.
Other community-oriented policing projects that animal control will be used for, said Howlett, are unlocking vehicles, performing residential security checks, and "anything involving transportation that’s not an enforcement issue."
If these additional duties conflict with an animal emergency, said Howlett, the animal control officer will be dispatched to the emergency situation instead. However, if a call comes in for information or another non-emergency, the officer will be used for the more important task.
Howlett said records show that animal control received an average of two telephone calls a day from January 2009 to mid-June 2010. He wasn’t sure how many of those calls required responses, but he said they included requests for such information as the dates for rabies clinics.
"Once a lady had three dogs in her car and they were barking at her and threatening her," said Howlett. "I would pull animal control off funeral duty for that if I didn’t have a deputy. Last year a lady was attacked by a rabid fox. I will dispatch anybody and everybody I have on that. If a dog has been digging up flower beds, the officer will stay on funeral duty."
Howlett said that every call that comes into his office generates a basic report that includes the time the call was received, the time it was dispatched, the chief complaint, the time units arrive on the scene, and the time they clear the scene. All of this is recorded on a voice recorder, he said, except for calls made to the crime line.
Deputies can add notes and personal observations to the basic incident report, said Howlett, but they can’t alter or delete the information already included.
Keeping such records can help in such areas as declaring a dog a vicious animal, said Howlett, because a history is created that can be used in court. He said reports will be sent to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, and such record-keeping will make better cases for the Commonwealth because reports can include witness statements, evidence collection and other information.
The regular training that deputies receive in such areas as search warrants, use of force, cultural diversity, and firearms will stand the animal control officers in good stead, said Howlett, but they will also receive training in areas specialized for their job, such as wild animals, rabies, exotic animals, dog-fighting and animal conservation.
"Arrests and tickets are only as important as the conviction rate," said Howlett. "It takes time and training to know how to put a good case together and get a conviction in court. When you get training, everybody profits."
Animal control officers will work the same shift as other deputies, said Howlett. This consists of 168 hours in 12-hour shifts on a 28-day cycle. They will be in the sheriff’s office chain of command the same as other deputies, reporting first to a shift supervisor, then the chief deputy, and finally the sheriff. While their duties will expand, said Howlett, so will their salaries.
The primary animal control vehicle will still be an already-in-use pick-up truck outfitted with a sophisticated system of climate-controlled boxes, said Howlett, but a Jeep Liberty has also been equipped with crates for animals so that both officers will be able to respond in emergencies.
Howlett said that county officials had discussed making animal control part of the sheriff’s office at least a year-and-a-half ago when the budget crunch first started, and "as the budget crisis increased, it seemed more logical financially."
Horn agreed. "It’s a good fit," he said. "It will take some time for them to learn the complexity of animal control and for us to learn corrections and attend the academy. It’s all brand new but it’s beginning to mesh. It’s working pretty good so far."