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Gauley Bridge: Speed trap or bum rap?

GAULEY BRIDGE, W.Va. -- The Gauley Bridge City Council is considering downsizing its police force in the wake of last week's resignations of the police chief and two officers.

Over the past several years, residents of this Fayette County town have criticized the police department for its strong presence -- which many have said hurts local business.

Mayor Byron Winebrenner and the five-member City Council distributed surveys this month asking residents their opinions on how the town is operating -- including its police force.

One survey question asks, "Does our town need 24 hour-seven days a week police coverage?"

Last week, Police Chief Leonard Sean Whipkey submitted a letter of resignation. That same week, the West Virginia State Police confirmed it had seized files and computers kept by Gauley Bridge police under Whipkey's leadership as part of a yearlong investigation into the department's records. Two other part-time officers resigned early last month.

Winebrenner said the City Council had considered downsizing the force weeks before the three officers resigned.

Council members are split on the issue.

Winebrenner is leading one side against the idea, along with council members Ruth Neal and Jeremy Whiteside.

The constant police patrolling has virtually ended all criminal activity in the town of 614 people, Winebrenner said.

"We are, more or less, crime-free here, other than the occasional four-wheeler disturbing somebody or somebody drank a little more than he should and hit his wife," Winebrenner said. "I attribute that to the police."

However, City Councilman John Nicholas said he's in favor of looking at other options, such as operating with fewer officers or implementing a neighborhood watch. The money to support a six-member police force is just not in the town's budget anymore, he said.

"We are having a lot of budget problems -- and a lot of small towns are -- but look at towns similar to our size, such as Cowan and Webster Springs," Nicholas said. "They got one full-time officer and one part-time. The people I've talked to up there say their city doesn't have any more drug problems than we do."

Council members Gladys Kauff and Tom Morgan have expressed similar views.

Bad reputation

John and Candy Graves, who own Jarvis Pro Hardware in Gauley Bridge, have attended recent council meetings, asking its members to look into the police effects on the town.

Outsiders perceive Gauley Bridge as a speed trap, Candy Graves said.

In the past four years, police in Gauley Bridge have issued more than 6,000 speeding tickets. That's more than any other city or town in the state, according to the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles.

Morgan pointed to the closing of the Foodland, the town's only grocery store, early last month as evidence of the police's negative effects. Customers simply don't come to Gauley Bridge because they can't afford $100 speeding tickets, he said.

Tudor's Biscuit World, NAPA Auto Parts and The Flower Basket also closed within the past few years. More businesses are set to open though, he said.

About 20 residents -- elderly or otherwise -- are unable to drive 10 miles to the next grocery store in Smithers, Morgan said.

Winebrenner said Foodland closed because of multiple factors -- not because of the town's bad reputation. The wavering national economy has simply taken its toll, he said. He pointed to a Walmart opening in Quincy as one reason the grocery store's business suffered.

Phil O'Dell, owner of Gauley Bridge Home Furnishings, said he's heard his customers complain about speeding tickets, but for the most part, the town's reputation has not hurt his business.

"Can you say there is some effect from the speed limit? Oh yeah." O'Dell said. "But it's also the economic status of the country and of the state.  . . . Who can say exactly what affects it?"

O'Dell has lived in the town his whole life and has not received a speeding ticket, he said.

Winebrenner said the council is working to bring a grocery store back to town. Council members formed a committee last week to make calls to national grocery store chains.

In the meantime, Gauley Bridge residents buy their canned food from a local dollar store. A Go-Mart gas station sign on Main Street reads: "We have milk, bread and eggs."

'The middle man'

Winebrenner said the City Council often is criticized for its relationship with the police. Even he said it's hard to ignore the role the police force plays in the town. About 50 percent of the town's revenue comes from money generated through speeding tickets.

However, Winebrenner said, he's tired of the City Council playing "the middle man" between residents and the police. On average, about three or four people attend every council meeting, complaining about tickets they've received, he said.

They mostly complain that they did not deserve the ticket and ask that it be dropped, Winebrenner said. The complaint is recorded in the meeting's minutes, but there is little the council does for the person. Winebrenner tells every person who complains to take it up with the officer who wrote the ticket.

Those who complain at the meetings almost always are out-of-town residents, he said. No one in Gauley Bridge, he said, has a problem with the police or complains about tickets received.

"I'd be totally shocked if our townspeople have much to say about our town and our police, other than praise," he said.

Winebrenner said at Tuesday's meeting that Gauley Bridge police have a system to keep track of those who are uncooperative when they are pulled over for speeding. The issuing officer puts a hash mark at the top of the ticket for anyone who talks back, Winebrenner said.

A majority of the complainers at the council meetings, he said, have markings on their tickets.

Reach Travis Crum at travis.crum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.


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