BELLE — Nearly 30 Belle residents attended an informational meeting Jan. 23 at the Belle-Bland Community Center hosted by Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman to meet deputies and ask questions …
BELLE — Nearly 30 Belle residents attended an informational meeting Jan. 23 at the Belle-Bland Community Center hosted by Maries County Sheriff Chris Heitman to meet deputies and ask questions about a new police contract set to begin Feb. 1 after it is signed into place on Friday.
“We all can agree this is not the same Belle as 10 years ago,” Heitman told attendees. “I am not here to debate whether the city council should or should not go with us. We are here to tell you what we are going to offer the city of Belle and make things better for you guys.”
Heitman said he would take questions from the audience after he did his best to explain the contract. He said there has already been some backlash in town since Jan. 14, when the board voted to contract police services to the sheriff’s department and they have taken a more active role in policing the town.
He referenced a specific Facebook comment where the individual felt that a traffic stop against their cousin for a headlight out was unwarranted. They asked in the comment if that is what the residences of Belle could expect from Maries County.
“It is absolutely what you can expect,” He said. “My deputy was professional, was polite. The individual was stopped for a traffic violation and given a warning. How can you complain?”
He said the comment mentioned the driver was asked if there were drugs in the vehicle. “That’s not an insult, it is my deputy trying to do his job,” Heitman said. “A traffic stop is not harassment. You are getting stopped because you broke the law. If you don’t want to get stopped, don’t break the law.”
He added that his department’s number one priority was keeping the town safe and victim crimes would be their top priority because no one should have to wait three or four weeks in the city of Belle for a sexual assault case to be investigated.
“After that, we are going to really start working on the drug problem, and we are going to be really aggressive with that, but we are not going to violate anyone’s rights in town,” he said.
Heitman added that people may get pulled over, and if his deputies didn’t treat them with the respect they would give Heitman’s mother or daughter, to call him and he would take care of it.
“After that, we are going to really enforce traffic enforcement,” Heitman said. “People talk about how the city wants the fine revenue, but that is not our priority. It is our priority to make the city safe.”
Heitman told The Advocate that he wrote a traffic violation ticket on Jan. 22 — the day before the meeting.
“I stopped people, gave warnings, and probably saw 10 violations in a short half-hour I was in town,” he said. “Then an individual went through a stop sign at 10 miles an hour. You don’t get a warning when you do it that bad.”
The amount of traffic violations in town he says is not about making revenue. Since he became sheriff in 2009, there have been two driving while intoxicated fatalities inside the city limits of Belle.
“I don’t want to be picking up dead bodies off of Highway 28 in town any more or dealing with traffic crashes where people are seriously injured because they are breaking the law,” he said. “It’s not about writing a $100 ticket for the city. It’s about writing a ticket to get a person to stop speeding. Slow down so you don’t hit your kid or my kid.”
Deputies stationed in Belle will remain in Belle and not be pulled for county business, but there may be times when a Belle deputy makes an arrest in the city limits and transports the prisoner to Maries County Jail or the hospital. Then a deputy may not be available in town, but someone would be able to respond in town.
“Overall, I do believe the city council had the city’s best interest in hand when they voted for this,” Heitman said. “This is not something that I asked for, although people did complain a little bit because I was not at every meeting. I wasn’t here to sell this.”
He said he hates to see the police department go away, but he also wants to see active law enforcement in town.
“The city lost nothing when they did this, guys. They gained. You still a full-time marshal (Joe Turnbough) who is able to enforce every law he wants to enforce,” he said. “I talked to the marshal today and fully expect to have a fantastic working relationship with him. We all know Joe, he is a great guy. We have a difference in opinion when it comes to law enforcement. I am more proactive, where he is more courteous. There may be a chance you get a ticket, where, if Joe stops you, you wouldn’t.”
He added that if a fight broke out on main street, he would want Turnbogh to back him up, adding that the marshal has already agreed to help Maries County if he is in town.
“You still have your marshal and gain resources you didn’t have,” he continued. “The city is going to have coverage that its never had before. At least 20 to 24-hour coverage in town — not a deputy on-call but a deputy on patrol.”
He said he hopes the community will give them support even if they don’t agree with the contract, and to get behind the people trying to keep the community safe.
“I don’t just take this as a win for the city, but a win for the county as well,” he said. “If you reduce crime in this city it will reduce crime in the county and most of the major cases in town, the sheriff’s department was investigating anyway.”
The Belle Police Station will become the Maries County Belle Division Substation. Deputies are expected to operate out of the front office of the department.
“Until we get fully staffed, you might see me covering a shift or two in town,” Heitman said as he prepared to let Lt. Scott John introduced the other deputies, including Brian Brennan and Jerry Coborn who had worked in Belle under Turnbough. The two deputies took their oaths to be employed by the sheriff’s department at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon.
As to citizens who think stopping people who are speeding, rolling through stops signs, or have headlamps out, John explained to the group that traffic stops allow them to make contact with citizens and start the investigative process.
“It may seem petty to you, but that allows us to see what’s in the back seat, see if there are any robbery tools, make sure the license plate comes back to the car and starts the investigative process,” John explained. “We are not going to come in here and pound everyone with citations. You will probably see traffic stops done that normally aren’t done.”
Heitman added that kids need to be safe walking home from school, and that the traffic he has seen when school lets out is atrocious.
John said the officers have dash cameras in the cars and body cameras that can be reviewed if any complaints are made.
“I’ve already reviewed the body camera and dash camera from the incident last night (that Heitman mentioned earlier),” John said.
Heitman added that the cameras, which are expensive investments, are there to protect his deputies against false complaints as well as citizens.
“I understand a lot of people weren’t for this and I didn’t solicit it,” Heitman said. “My family came from Belle, my kid lives in Belle, and I do think it is best for the town. Belle needs some aggressive law enforcement presence.”