Small County, Big Responsibilities
Covering 99 square miles of land and another 3.5 square miles of the Ohio River, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office’s nine sworn officers serve the commonwealth’s smallest county in size. But Gallatin County also is home to the Kentucky Speedway, sits across the river from Belterra Casino and Resort and lies right in the mix of the northern Kentucky heroin scourge. Despite being small in size, these big responsibilities keep Gallatin County’s law enforcement officers hopping.
Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office
Six years ago when Gallatin County Sheriff Josh Neale first was elected, the agency began meeting these big responsibilities head on. Over time, Neale has tripled the number of sworn officers from three to nine, increased service to include 24/7 law enforcement coverage and began engaging citizens in taking control and ownership over the safety of their neighborhoods.
“We had never had 24-hour coverage before,” Neale said. “It’s important to our citizens at 3 a.m. if there is a car accident or they have a problem to not wait for a deputy to get out of bed or for a [Kentucky State Police] trooper to come from four to five counties away. So we have improved our response times and quality of service with new officers and training.
“But because we’re a small community, we can do a more personalized job with our citizens,” Neale continued. “I make it a point for my guys to handle 95 percent of all our calls.”
As a former Gallatin County deputy and Florence police officer, Neale still is a certified peace officer and is what his deputies call ‘an active sheriff,’ picking up shifts when other deputies are on vacation or out sick, or answering calls when the shift gets really busy.
“He works like we do,” said Capt. John Fuellhart. “He works accidents, cases, whatever it takes, and it is a blessing to have a sheriff who can do that.”
Aided by an Active 911 app on their smart phones, Neale and his deputies are able to keep up with exactly what’s going on in the county. The Active 911 app is linked directly to the county’s computer aided dispatch system and immediately provides officers with the call, address, time and who’s assigned, and is updated in real time with e-notes entered by dispatchers in CAD.
“Our assistant 911 director introduced us to the app,” Neale said. “Even if I’m out of town, I can still see what’s going on without being on the radio. Or if I’m in court with no radio, but something happens and I need to leave, I see it on the app and can respond immediately. You have to embrace technology, and it is well worth the cost.”
Above and Beyond
Beyond the normal calls for service, Gallatin County faces several unique venues which require additional and distinct service. The biggest of these is the Kentucky Speedway. The 1.5-mile, tri-oval speedway in Sparta has hosted ARCA, NASCAR and Indy Racing League races annually since it opened in 2000. The Speedway hosts large-scale events like the Xfinity Series, Camping World Truck Series and Sprint Series Quaker State 400 to smaller events like 10K races, the Lantern Fest and car shows. But even some car shows, like the Import Alliance, can bring in as many as 20,000 cars to the Speedway, Neale said.
The Quaker State 400 is the biggest event, filling the Speedway and surrounding campgrounds with 80,000 people and RVs. Though originally coordinated by the Boone County Sheriff’s Office at its inception, and staffed with law enforcement from across the area, the demand on the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office is high.
“This event is all hands on deck,” Neale said. “We call it Hell Week. We get very few hours of sleep and we’re out there 13 to 15 hours a day, plus taking calls for service.”
Handling everything from traffic backups and drunken disputes to domestics and illicit drug use, dealing with the Speedway crowds is non-stop action, Neale said. They begin pouring in as early as Tuesday, and by Thursday the campgrounds are in full swing for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday races.
“We have to set a very high expectation, and we don’t give second chances,” Neale said about dealing with the often– rowdy crowds in the campgrounds. “When we arrive, we handle situations and take people to jail. If we relax that expectation or give second chances, we’d be back over and over again.”
In addition to the craziness of the Speedway, sitting right on the Ohio River, Gallatin County has a boat used for large events, such as Belterra Casino and Resort poker runs and Warsaw’s River Days festival and fireworks. Though the agency doesn’t actively patrol the river on a daily basis, having the ability to be on the river during these special events is necessary to ensure the safety and security of event participants. In addition, if there is a drowning or a capsized boat reported on the river, GCSO is the first to respond and get on the water, Neale said.
The agency is working to obtain grant funding for a flat-bottom boat and equipment that will give them greater search and rescue capabilities on the water.
“One of the tougher parts of the job is working Intersate-71,” Capt. Fuellhart said. “We only have about 10 to 15 miles of interstate, but it stays busy. There are a lot of curves and bad spots, and we work a lot of accidents. When you get one out there, it could last all day.”
Fuellhart recalled one accident where a tractor trailer carting hogs flipped over.
“There were two or three of us out there for eight hours,” he said. “Hogs had to be shot because they were running around the interstate, and we couldn’t have that. The interstate has its own set of problems, but we’re just responsible for our section.”
Fuellhart, now nearly 74, has served GCSO for 14 years, working for Sparta Police Department for three years prior. He completed basic training in 1999 at age 56.
“I was one of the oldest, but I thought if I couldn’t do what they wanted me to at the academy, I shouldn’t be doing the job anyway,” Fuellhart said.
A vital part of the Gallatin County team, Fuellhart is responsible for the overall supervision of the courthouse, distributes nuisance ordinances and works patrol. Though he now works day shift, he says he loved working night shift.
“If it happens at night, it’s probably going to be worse than on day shift most of the time,” Fuellhart said. “Seems like when they get an accident, it’s a humdinger, and they probably make more arrests at night.
“I used to love working night shift because that’s where the action is,” he continued. “I’m an adrenaline junky like all cops. If I told you different, I’d be lying.”
Special Duty Assignments
About three years ago, Neale decided to create a position the county had never had before — a full time day-shift detective.
“Each officer takes calls, but it’s hard for our third-shift guys to track leads down or follow up with LEADS Online to search for stolen property,” Neale said. “[Our detective] can track down leads during day-shift hours, and it takes a lot of pressure off because he can chase things down. It cuts down on overtime for the third-shift deputies too.”
He is responsible for property and white collar crime, and Neale said he has a good success rate with tracking stolen property. The detective has been essential in embezzling cases for public and private organizations and individuals for multi thousands of dollars.
The department also hired a bilingual officer who has been invaluable in relating to the Hispanic population in the county and building those relationships, Neale said.
“With cultural differences, it is a lot easier to educate and communicate with our Hispanic community,” Neale said. “[Officer Oscar Sanchez] is from Mexico; he understands them, and they trust him. He’s been great to ease the tension that stems from their law enforcement system in Mexico.
“In the past, several Hispanics were involved in crime, but were scared to report it because they didn’t know what would happen or what the consequences might be,” Neale said. “[In Mexico] reporting crime is a burden to them, so having Officer Sanchez has been a great barrier breaker for us.”
Community involvement is important to Sheriff Neale who created community watch programs shortly after being elected in 2009. He conducts town-hall meetings in different parts of the county and invites people to talk about issues they are experiencing in their community or neighborhoods, and they have tremendous buy in and success with this program, Neale said.
For a small agency in a small, mostly rural county, GCSO is full of big surprises and is making a big impact on its community and citizens.
“I will brag that I have the best [deputies] and I’d put them up against any large department,” Neale said. “We take our work seriously, and we personalize it to the community.”