Photo by Charity Maness
Sheriff Lyle Norton recently reflected on his first year in office while looking forward to the future, with hopes of a new Justice Center.
By Charity Maness
HOT SPRINGS – In 2023, Fall River County Sheriff Lyle Norton came into office with a list of goals, of which some might have thought to be lofty, but nonetheless, he set out to achieve them, and achieve them he did.
The Fall River County Sheriff Office (FRCSO) is fully staffed, decked out in new uniforms, equipment, and the recipients of cutting edge training.
He also implemented a new command structure that includes a Deputy Chief (Deputy Belt) and a Corporal (Deputy Dobbs).
Additionally, Sheriff Norton set out to cross-deputize all Hot Springs Police Officers, another goal he achieved.
“We are working well with the Police Department (PD),” said Norton, “We have had a lot of help with city officers. It increased the safety for law enforcement in the county; we all breathe a little easier knowing we have that option.”
Yet the decision to cross-deputize also holds benefits for the community.
“This not only assured more safety for law enforcement, it allowed better coverage for the city and county,” said Norton.
Norton is proud of the deputies in his department.
“Over the last year in the SO (Sheriff Office), I’ve had guys step up and want to take up roles in the Department,” said Norton, “One person who is a great investigator enjoys it and wants those responsibilities. One deputy likes traffic, another training; another evidence. Each are personally invested in the department and specializing in their own niche, which is fantastic because no one person can do it all and everyone is contributing in some way shape or form.”
Being fully staffed has also allowed the SO to be more proactive in the community; a more proactive law enforcement also increases arrests and contacts.
In 2023, 765 people were brought into the jail, which includes 605 from the SO and PD with the remaining number from Angostura, Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies. At times transport of inmates was required to reduce jail population.
“If Pennington County could take them we would go there,” explained Norton, but each transport comes with the caveat that the receiving jail has room, if there is no room, the decision to transport to a further jail becomes a reality; a costly one.
Transporting an inmate removes one law enforcement officer from the county not just once, but at a minimum twice.
“When we book and transport an inmate it takes Law Enforcement out of the community for an unknown amount of hours depending upon the receiving jail,” explained Norton.
But it’s not just the original transport that has an impact, it is also the need to transport the inmate for arraignment back to Fall River County and then back to their booking jail. If additional court dates are required then additional transports are required also; all at the cost of the county.
Norton points to not only loss of law enforcement personnel within the county but loss of funds due to costs for transport and inmate housing.
Norton is a proponent for a new Justice Center for Fall River County.
“Everyone is focused on jail, jail, jail, but it’s so much more than that,” he said. “The future of Fall River County is hanging in the balance. I know it sounds ominous, but it is true, if we don’t do this, the repercussions will be awful to the county and the city.”
It is not only the financial repercussions that the county will face, it’s the increased usage of the courts, jails, and facilities that create a co-mingling of public and incarcerated at what Norton believes to be a dangerous level.
“Our court security is not safe for prisoners, public, staff or judges.” He said. “The general public walking into the courthouse doesn’t expect to run into inmates waiting in the hallways but it happens. It may be normal for us but it’s not normal for grandma who is coming in to get her license plates and sharing the hall with jail staff and inmates on their way to court.”
Norton points out that the transportation costs, rising costs to house inmates out of county, public contact with inmates, inmate and public safety, staff safety, and more would be rectified by the proposed Justice Center.
While the Justice Center is still on the County Commissioner’s table, Sheriff Norton continues to work toward future goals.
“In 2024, we will continue training with some deputies focusing on crime scene operations, investigation tactics, and instructor development,” said Norton.
While training is required, Norton is excited to have a staff that wants training.
“Everyone wants more training,” he said. “We have had in house trainings and active shooter trainings. Recently, along with the HSPD, we held night shoot training at the range; low light shooting with a state qualification in low light. All officers who shot qualified.”
The year 2023 saw the rise of Fentanyl in the county with each law enforcement officer carrying Norcan to treat an opioid overdose.
In 2024, Fentanyl use has increased exponentially within the county and Fentanyl testing has been added at the jail so it can be recognized better.
“It is definitely here,” said Norton, “and we are seeing it on a pretty regular basis and at times a really good quantity. It’s disheartening but it is a fact of life, not just here.”
Norton advises that it is just not Fentanyl that is a problem.
“Drugs are the largest law enforcement problem in this county,” he said. “Most robberies and thefts can be attributed to the drug problem.”
While currently Norton is not looking to create or expand a volunteer or reserve program, he has not tabled the thought.
“A lot of the future growth of the SO hinges on the Justice Center,” he said, “if it fails we will need more volunteer Law Enforcement to fill in for transport and more.”