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Newport folds police department, contracts with sheriff for policing

NEWPORT, Minn -- With the Newport police department beset by problems that included missing evidence, the Washington County Sheriff's Office will handle Newport's policing for at least the next two years. With Newport police officers lining the b...

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NEWPORT, Minn - With the Newport police department beset by problems that included missing evidence, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office will handle Newport’s policing for at least the next two years.

With Newport police officers lining the back of the room and residents filling seats at city hall Thursday, council members discussed what they called an “emotional” topic and ultimately voted 3-2 on a two-year contract with the sheriff’s office for policing services.

The contract was approved after a motion to hire a new police chief failed on the same vote.

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“I do not think hiring a chief at this time is a responsible step to take,” council member Bill Sumner said. “If at the end of two years there’s a reason to change back, it could be done.”

Newport’s policing has been in flux for months. The city signed a short-term agreement with the sheriff’s department for policing services, which was set to expire at the end of this month, while it explored its options.

Newport looked at working with St. Paul Park or Cottage Grove for policing, either by merging or contracting, but talks with those cities stalled last month when the council ordered an investigation into unaccounted-for items in the department’s property room.

Fourteen weapons and an undetermined amount of money was unaccounted for and property for more than 1,100 cases could not be tracked, according to a memo from Sheriff Bill Hutton after the first 30 days of the short-term contract.

Sumner said with that and other problems that have become public, the county will provide needed leadership and accountability. Those other problems include an investigation of an officer having a sexual encounter in a department office.

Council member Tracy Rahm, who voted against the county contract, said while the sheriff’s office has done a good job in the interim, keeping a police department in Newport would be better for the community long-term. He said the decision comes down to leadership and “strategic direction,” saying the city should hire a chief and “clean up” problems.

“I think it’s very convenient to just blame leadership,” council member Dan Lund said.

He said it’s more difficult and costly now to run a small police department than it was in the past.

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“I don’t think it makes fiscal sense for a city the size of Newport to keep its own police department,” he said.

Mayor Tim Geraghty said the top priority is public safety, but also highlighted cost savings under the county contract. Newport would save more than $160,000 over the projected policing budget next year, according to staff.

Washington County’s contract would allow Newport’s police officers to become sheriff’s deputies without having to apply. The two-year contract is effective Jan. 1.

Council member Tom Ingemann, who also voted “no” on the contract, said projected savings from the county’s plan might not pan out, and advocated hiring a police chief.

“The system’s broke,” he said. “All we need is a leader.”

Rahm said while council members disagree on the approach, they all recognized that something needed to happen.

“I think we’ve all kind of agreed in a roundabout way that changes are needed,” he said.

Still, Lund commended the Newport officers for their work in the community.

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“I think our officers and our police department should be very proud of the services they provided,” he said.

Related Topics: POLICE
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