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Andrew Laker | The Republic Sgt. T.A. Smith of the Bartholomew County Sheriff's Department demonstrates the tools he uses to open car doors for citizens locked out of their vehicles. The department has responded to 913 %u201Clockouts%u201D as of the end of May - the majority of them within city limits.
More people are requesting Bartholomew County deputies unlock their cars than ever before.
Sheriff’s deputies unlock vehicles free as a public service to the community. So far this year, deputies have responded to 1,092 lockouts through mid-June — 369 more calls than in the first six months of 2011 and 449 more than the same period in 2010.
They perform the service among thousands of other calls every year, from responding to crimes in progress to investigating traffic accidents, and often must drive into the city from their patrols on county roads because the Columbus Police Department does not offer the service.
Bartholomew County Sheriff Mark Gorbett analyzed the thousands of calls the sheriff’s department receives to unlock vehicles for motorists who have locked themselves out.
Gorbett said 1,050 of the deputies’ 1,577 lockout responses last year — 67 percent — were in Columbus, according to statistics provided by the Bartholomew County 911 Center. The remainder of the county accounted for 33 percent of the calls.
“The county’s not a doughnut,” Gorbett said. “I’ve been elected by all the people in this community.”
He said he thinks the number of lockout calls is increasing because word has spread that deputies will provide the service.
Columbus police stopped unlocking vehicles in 2008. Since then, emergency dispatchers will advise callers to contact a locksmith if their vehicle is in city limits.
But the dispatcher will send a sheriff’s deputy if the caller asks for one.
“The cat is out of the bag,” Gorbett said. “In my eyes it’s a public service. It’s normally a positive interaction with the public.”
He said he evaluated the department’s lockout policy this spring after receiving “subtle pressure” from the department’s patrol division because the lockout calls only add to an escalating number of other calls.
The sheriff’s department received more than 40,000 calls for service last year, which is double the amount of a decade ago. Gorbett said the number of sheriff’s deputies has not doubled in that time.
Sheriff’s Capt. John Martoccia, commander of the patrol division, said he agrees that unlocking vehicles is a public service that gives deputies the chance to help someone in need, but he added that deputies often are weighed down with other responsibilities.
Unlocking cars has become an additional chore that the deputies wanted the sheriff to review.
Lockouts are a “low priority” for sheriff’s deputies, meaning they will clear other calls before responding to unlock a vehicle, said Maj. Todd Noblitt, the sheriff’s chief deputy.
The average amount of time spent on a lockout call from the initial dispatch to arriving at the scene and unlocking the vehicle is 23 minutes.
Some sheriff’s departments in other counties also offer the service.
Johnson County continues to respond to lockouts. Wayne County, with about the same size population as Bartholomew County, also unlocks vehicles.
But Jackson and Decatur counties quit providing the service years ago.
Decatur County Sheriff Greg Allen said former Sheriff Daryl Templeton eliminated it because “the calls were just becoming too much.” Allen said the department sometimes received about 100 per month.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Carothers said his department stopped unlocking vehicles more than a decade ago because of the number of calls and the liability involved with possibly damaging a caller’s vehicle.
Bartholomew County sheriff’s deputies require motorists to sign a liability waiver before unlocking a vehicle, Gorbett said.
He said he plans to have deputies assigned to serving warrants and civil court documents respond to more of the lockout calls because those deputies usually are in the city to serve the papers.
The sheriff hopes it helps reduce the time patrol deputies spend responding to the calls.
The lockout service would be less cumbersome if Columbus police would start offering it again, the sheriff said.
He added that he and police department administrators have a “philosophical difference” over what they consider public service.
Occasionally deputies will unlock vehicles despite city police officers being less than a block away, Gorbett said. He also noted that deputies have been approached by city officers who advise them of someone locked out of their vehicle.
Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said city officers will unlock vehicles in emergency situations, such as when a child is stuck inside, but that the police department has no intention of unlocking vehicles beyond that.
Maddix said the department’s call volume prohibits adding the service, and the department has placed a priority on other services, such as increasing neighborhood patrols.
“There are services in town that offer this,” Maddix said. “With our call volume, and we’re doing all the extra patrols, that’s where we’re putting our resources.”
Gorbett said he will continue to evaluate the sheriff’s department’s call volume and would consider eliminating the service if he felt deputies could not keep up with other duties.
He also said the department would never charge a fee for the service as long as he is sheriff.
“We’re not neglecting any other law enforcement responsibilities by doing this,” he said. “Until I see an impact elsewhere, we will continue to do this as a public service. If there’s someone out there waiting for help, how do we turn them down?”
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