NEWELL - In an emotional meeting Tuesday with new Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher, the people of Newell sounded like a community simultaneously frozen by fear and fed up with crime.
"We have no police here at all," one woman said, "and we can't get them to come here because they're taking care of other towns."
Newell residents turned out in force Tuesday night for a meeting called by the Newell Community Improvement Coalition to address concerns about a rash of home burglaries and car break-ins.
Hancock County Sheriff Ralph Fletcher makes a point during Tuesday night’s community meeting at the Newell Lions Den. Newell residents are upset at what they perceive to be a lack of law enforcement attention to their unincorporated community. -- Stephen Huba
Coalition Treasurer Sue Thompson estimated more than 150 people filled the Newell Lions Den hall, making it standing-room-only.
"We are really proud of Newell tonight," Thompson said. "I really am."
The 90-minute meeting - by turns animated and civil - was dominated by questions for Fletcher about what the Hancock County Sheriff's Department is doing to reduce crime in Newell.
Fletcher, elected to the office of sheriff in November, had to use his big voice at times to answer questions, talk over people and keep order in the meeting. At one point, Fletcher, 60, intervened in what looked to become an altercation between a man and a woman - both trying to be heard over the shouting.
To a man who peppered him with questions, Fletcher said, "I can take the heckling - but not for long."
Later, to an insistent woman, Fletcher said, "Let me finish."
"I am," the woman said.
"No," Fletcher replied, "your mouth's still moving."
Longtime residents, including Marilyn Boyd, told Fletcher they feel unsafe in a community that was once quiet and uneventful. Many said they feel forgotten by law enforcement and powerless because theirs is an unincorporated town - with no local government or police force.
Boyd wondered why the constable and justice of the peace she remembers from her childhood can't be brought back.
"I intend to keep our officers in the unincorporated parts of Hancock County," Fletcher said to applause. "That's my plan."
Fletcher, a former Weirton police chief, said he has other plans, as funding allows:
To increase the number of detectives working major crimes;
To boost patrols in high-crime areas;
To bring more professionalism "to the officers who don't show it";
To add two deputies to the force; and
To establish zone patrols.
The latter, Fletcher said, will help with police coverage because, with 26 sworn officers and 25 part-time reserve officers, there's not enough manpower to sufficiently respond to calls.
"Newell will be part of a zone where an officer will be in this particular neighborhood often," Fletcher said.
Residents complained that no suspects in the burglaries have been arrested. One man named names, saying that three young people are responsible.
"You have not given me a name yet that I don't know," Fletcher said. "Proving it's different. Give me some good evidence, so I can get an officer down here."
Another man said he knows of at least 10 Newell residents who have recently bought a gun to protect themselves.
"What are a homeowner's rights?" he asked.
Fletcher cited the castle law, which is the law of the land in West Virginia.
"You are the king of your castle, and, in West Virginia, you have a right to protect yours. You have a right to protect your life and property inside your home."
To other residents - women concerned about their safety and the safety of their children - Fletcher gave some plain-spoken advice: "Do what you have to do to protect yourself. ... If you swing the bat once and it knocks him out, you stop."
Fletcher took residents to task for acting concerned but not doing anything about crime. He said he recently had eight plain-clothes officers in town - four in vehicles, four on foot - conducting surveillance and tripping alarms. No one in town reported any suspicious activity, he said.
"I'm disappointed that nobody called," he said.
Fletcher suggested community involvement in the form of neighborhood watches. He also said he supports a curfew.
At the end of the meeting, Fletcher said, "This is what I expected. I expected the people to be upset. I expected them to have a lot of questions about safety. I hope I was able to help them out. Time will tell."
(Huba can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)