Crime & Courts

Columbia police help colleagues in tiny Va. town

Clinchco, Va., has 420 people, a grocery store and a town truck the locals call "Fred Flintstone" because you can see through the floorboards.

It also has a police department, with four officers and two police cars. With a town budget of less than $100,000, Police Chief Marty Davis was close to shutting the department down earlier this year.

But Davis, who also works as a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers, remembered a job offer he had from the Columbia Police Department in 1983, before he was old enough to drink. He thought if the department was willing to help him 26 years ago, maybe it would help him now.

The Columbia Police Department, which has had to furlough officers and cut its equipment budget to zero, sent shirts, pants, jackets, shoes, batons, cameras and blue lights, among other things, to the struggling department.

Davis said the donations, while small, have allowed him to keep his department going.

"I've been able to bring on two auxiliary officers as well as uniform some of the officers we've brought on instead of me having to ... buy all of those uniforms," Davis said.

Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter knows the challenges that come with a small town police department. Before coming to Columbia, he was the police chief in Shelby, N.C. Before that, he was the deputy police chief in Wilmington, N.C.

"Marty's job is a lot more difficult than mine," Carter said. "You think smaller is easier, but smaller is worse by far."

When he's not worrying about speeding coal trucks and stray dogs ("they get into the garbage and chase kids"), Davis tries to figure out how to keep his department funded.

Clinchco is on the western side of Virginia, in the Allegheny Mountains. Most of the land is so rocky it can't be used commercially. The flat land that is available is taken up by two county schools, which the town cannot tax.

Davis has access to some state grants, but with the economy struggling, "We're not getting the grants that we were getting."

Carter also has had to rely on grants to supplement his budget, including federal grants of $2.8 million to hire 18 officers and $597,483 to buy equipment.

But Carter said it was important to him to reach out to Clinchco.

"What we looked at giving was those things that had no impact on what we consider an operational necessity," Carter said. "These are things that we have that we were not using and a very good option for us to provide to somebody who needs it."

The small town of Clinchco sits in the small county of Dickenson, which has a small sheriff's department, Clinchco Vice Mayor James Addington said.

That's why it's important for the town to have its own police force, no matter how small it is. Addington referred a snow storm a few weeks ago that knocked out power to much of the town for three days.

Davis spent the evenings patrolling the residential areas, flashing his blue lights so residents could know he was there.

"It just gives them peace of mind to know that he was there," Addington said.