The Macon County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a 10-week Citizens Academy. During the course of the academy, residents are being afforded the opportunity to get up close and personal with various duties carried out by the Sheriff’s Office including community patrols, DUI enforcement, K9 demonstrations, and tactical SWAT team scenarios.
The educational program is intended to build a closer partnership with the local community and the Sheriff's Office. Each week, The Macon County News will report on the topic of the previous week's academy session.
Last Thursday, the focus of the class was on the criminal investigations unit of the department.
The criminal investigation course introduced students to the fundamental principles and procedures employed during investigations headed by the Sheriff's Office. From physical evidence, information sources, interviews and eyewitness identifications, members of the specialty unit are responsible for all aspects of any investigation in Macon County.
Investigative Unit Sergeant Don Willis, the second in command for the unit under Lieutenant Charles Moody, led the discussion last Thursday night. Macon County's investigative unit was first formed in 1984 under Sheriff George Moses.
Since its inception, the department has grown to a total of 17 officers, each assigned to a specific sub-group. Three officers are assigned to investigations involving property crime; two assigned to juvenile investigations; two full-time and one part-time assigned to narcotics; one assigned to domestic violence; and five officers being assigned as School Resource Officers at schools throughout the county.
Willis noted that due to the size of Macon County, any criminal investigation occurring in Macon County is handled by the 17-member team regardless of the crime, whereas larger cities have specific investigation units for specific crimes.
The investigation unit is responsible for crimes such as homicide, assault, threats, kidnapping, embezzlement, robbery, trespassing, bombings, drug offense, fraud and prostitution.
"Out of all the things that we are required to handle, I think prostitution remains the only crime that we have not seen here in Macon County," said Willis.
In the last seven years, the investigation unit has seen crime decrease significantly, which Willis says can be attributed to the department taking a proactive approach to crime within the county. In 2006, the criminal investigation unit was assigned to 538 cases which resulted in 395 warrants being issued. That number has steadily decreased and in 2012, the unit was assigned 270 cases that resulted in 428 warrants being issued.
"As a department, we have stopped being reactive and instead have taken a proactive approach to crime prevention in Macon County," said Willis.
With the increase of television shows like "C.S.I," Macon County Sheriff's Department Major Andy Shields said proving a case before a jury has become harder. "The juries expect more from us because of shows like 'C.S.I.,'" said Shields. "Despite what the show leads you to believe, there is not DNA on everything and it takes more than an hour to solve a case."
Willis said the turnaround time for evidence to be processed is also far longer than what is portrayed on television. "We have three labs in the state, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Asheville, and those labs are used by every department in the entire state," said Willis. "Sometimes it can be a year or more before evidence results get back to us."
Sheriff Robbie Holland noted that in the event of a pressing case such as a homicide, that requires a swift turnaround time, the State Bureau of Investigation can expedite evidence in order to solve the case.
During his tenure in Macon County, Willis has served the Sheriff's Department for 15 years, and before that, acted as the county's fire marshal. Willis said that one specific incident has haunted him. "The hardest case I have ever worked was one where a child was killed in a fire," said Willis. "When we got there, there was not anything we could do. I was right there, but I just couldn't help him."
In the last decade the stigma surrounding officers seeking help or counseling for work- related stress has changed. According to Willis, until recently, officers who sought counseling to debrief or to help process things experienced while on the job was viewed as a weakness by fellow colleagues.
Now, any officer within the sheriff's department that experiences work-related trauma is encouraged to seek professional counseling to help process the experience.
Following the lesson on the sheriff's departments criminal investigation unit, members of the class were given a real life crime scenario to act out. Taking on various roles, class members used resources of the department such as caution tape, cameras, fingerprinting kits and evidence collection materials.
Citizens were expected to follow the same rules and procedures implemented by department personnel to solve the robbery case scenario. With East Franklin Lead Teacher Becky Montgomery acting as the lead investigator, responsibilities were assigned to other class members in order to solve the robbery scenario.
Next Week's Citizens Academy will highlight the community patrols and traffic and DUI enforcement portions of the Macon County Sheriff's Department.