Last year was a rough year for law enforcement in Jefferson County. The annual survey of community attitudes by JCCs Center for Community Studies found that the negative perception of law enforcement for the first time since the survey began exceeded the number of respondents who felt police protection was improving.
The concern over law enforcement doubled in 2013 over the previous year, while those ranking public safety as getting better fell by about a third.
This is dismal news, but it should not be surprising. During the last 12 months, the Jefferson County Sheriffs Department has imploded with scandal following scandal. The open squabble between the sheriff with the county Legislature reminds residents regularly that police efficacy is in question. Fortunately, the breakdown in law enforcement that most likely has caused this change in public perception does not extend to the performance of the state police, Watertown city police and the smaller departments scattered around the county.
The negative headlines are owned by the Jefferson County sheriff, and it is incumbent upon him to become more aggressive in the last 18 months of his term to rectify the situation. Sheriff John Burns has promised to retire at the end of his current term, but the county cannot afford lame-duck leadership. The sheriff and the Legislature must work together to properly fund the efforts of newly appointed Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau to change the culture at the Metro-Jeff Public Safety Building.
In addition, the Sheriffs Department may have helped drag down the perception of the performance of local governments. The survey shows the most negative sentiment this century. In the 2013, study only 6.4 percent of respondents said local government was getting better, while 42 percent said it was getting worse. Significantly fewer people felt that local government performance was the same, down to 43 percent from 54 percent the year before.
The regular posturing over the Sheriffs Department did not improve responses about how well government was working. But the decline in opinions was caused by broader issues, not the least of which is the negative attitudes about the affordability of housing in the county. Residents worried about the cost of housing have a difficult time accepting local government entities that seem to stand in the way or delay projects to increase the availability of housing.
The survey also loudly proclaims that jobs and the economy as the most significant issue. The root of these feelings falls to an extent on local government, which sponsors a myriad of job development agencies, but obviously their performance is viewed as inadequate. The very respondents who worry about affordable housing are those worried about the lack of jobs and opportunity. That translates into a negative perception of local government.
The JCC survey provides the Legislature the information it needs to revamp its job creation efforts, streamline agencies, set goals for performance and hold appointed leaders accountable. The November election will send new faces to the Legislature. A campaign focused on the Jefferson County economy would do wonders in improving prospects of residents for a more prosperous future.