Who’s Watching The Town? Without ‘the law,’ citizens feel uneasy

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 12, 2004

FORKLAND – It may not quite be the wild west, but Forkland is law less, although three lawmen make their homes there.

This small Greene County town of about 650 people just a few miles north of Demopolis on Alabama Highway 43 has been without its own lawman since January 7, when Police Chief Abraham Croxton Jr. retired. It’s lone police officer, paid for by a Justice Department COPS grant, left a year before grant funding ran out to take a job with the sheriff’s department.

It is being policed by the Greene County Sheriff’s Department, which isn’t all bad since Sheriff Johnny Isaac and two of his deputies make Forkland home.

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Long reputed a haven for drug dealers and crime, Forkland – like other small towns – has been struggling with hard economic times. City leaders are searching to find a cure to the ills, but it’s hard going.

One of the biggest hurdles the city faces is the provision of benefits for its employees, something that hasn’t even been provided for the town’s seven employees.

“That’s the first thing they ask about,” said Mayor Eddie Woods.

Woods is working on a plan with state insurance and retirement providers to build a package the town can afford so that it can at least compete in the job recruitment game.

“We’re in the process of trying to get things done to secure some officers,” he said.

With a municipal budget – not counting a grant for a walking trail and a water system improvement grant the town’s going after – of $180,000, Woods knows its difficult to compete for law enforcement officers without a benefits package. He also knows that without a local law enforcement presence, the town isn’t fulfilling its obligations to its citizens.

“Without having law enforcement in the community, it puts a strain on other law enforcement having to come to do it,” he said. “Having (an officer) has a big impact. The county is very shorthanded anyway, and our people may have to wait 15 or 20 minutes for the deputy to come down and assist the citizen.”

For some citizens, that’s an issue that looms large on the horizon.

“Mostly I get the concerns of we need someone,” said 25-year veteran City Clerk Cynthia Stone. “Citizens are really concerned that someone could respond in a reasonable amount of time, and reasonable means different things to different people. Any calls we get, we forward to the sheriff’s office and they do respond, but Sheriff Isaac doesn’t have that many deputies to cover the whole county.”

Some citizens agree, although they admit crime in the small town doesn’t seem to be escalating at a rapid pace.

“I think we need our own law officers,” said Getrude Williams, a former city council member who served one term during the ’90s.

While events such as a recent robbery of a woman and her daughter here recently tend to magnify the issue, Williams believes the crime is coming down since Isaac was elected – particularly the drug traffic.

“Sheriff Isaac does a good job for Forkland, but he’s limited and we need someone local who can be out and about – driving around, watching things,” she said.

Grant writing may be the key to helping the town come up with funds to pay an officer, she said.

Mary Jo Evans tends to agree with that idea.

A widow, she’s been in Forkland since 1948 – a past owner of one of Forkland’s two stores, now known as Frank’s. She’s volunteered with the fire department in an effort to get it in shapes and said one person could make a difference – either for good or bad – in a town the size of hers.

“If one person could spend some time researching and working on grants, that could a have a tremendous impact,” she said.

While she doesn’t believe crime is out of control without the presence of a lawman, she has her own reservations.

“I just don’t go out at night, except when I go to church and then I pray my way back home,” she said.

For her, some comfort would come from knowing the town was protected by a local police officer.

“We just can’t rely only on the sheriff to provide our safety. We have to come up with a way to get someone here so we can have a quicker response,” she said.

Plus, the mere presence of an officer would go a long way as a deterrent to criminal activities.

“If people knew there was someone here all the time, they’d be a lot more careful,” she said, referencing the same robbery as Williams did.

Isaac said the presence of a law man could deter some crime.

“A presence is always a deterrent to some things, but it depends on a person who wants to commit a crime,” he said.

He said the department doesn’t actually receive that many calls from the town for service, and when they come in, his deputies will respond.

“We’re obligated to cover this county and a town without law enforcement protection fits into our territory as well as towns that have protection that we’re going to assist,” he said. “It’s about working together.”

He’s quick to add, however, any additional law enforcement personnel would be a welcomed benefit to the county and is working with Woods to help the process along.

“It is additional work we have to do by (Forkland) not having a police presence; it does put more on us, but that’s without saying that we can use law enforcement officers in our county,” he said.

He,too, doesn’t believe crime is escalating in Forkland because there’s no local officer.

“We still have got it but I don’t think it’s more than when we have had the protection of an officer,” he said. “It’s a small area with not a lot of crime, but we try to work it the best we can.”

The drug trade is beginning to drop off, too. That’s something both Isaac and the people who he serves can see. With that, often comes a drop in other offenses.

“It’s not as bad as it once was. We’ve made serious investigative moves and arrests. There’s still some going on in Forkland but it’s not as open as it was and we’re still working on it and expect to make some more arrests soon,” he said.

Isaac has focused efforts since his election at eradicating the drug scene in his county and has made inroads in the problem.

“We’re going to cover Forkland,” he added.

Isaac hopes that it’s only a matter of submission and approval of grant applications to help the city come up with the right salary and benefit package that will enable it to hire a new police chief, something Stone hopes to see happen as well.

“We’re not the only small town that’s financially struggling,” she said, noting the town lost 75 percent of its revenue when Birmingham allowed dog racing, cutting into GreenTrack’s revenues and the town’s tax receipts.

“We’re hanging in there and working toward better days,” she said