DPS Asked to Investigate Cromwell Police
By KAREN ANSON
A candidate for state office has asked the Department of Public Safety to investigate Cromwell's traffic enforcement under the recently enacted speed trap law. Cromwell city officials say they're in compliance, but others in the county, including the Seminole County sheriff and a man arrested and taken to jail for parking in a handicap zone, say there are problems.
Calls began as early as last summer to The Producer alleging that Cromwell police were laying in wait at the north edge of their annexed city limits for cars coming off Interstate 40.
Apparently within the past several months, Police Chief Don Autry has appointed a posse of reserve officers from Oklahoma City, noncommissioned security guards numbering around 10 to enforce the law in a town of about 250 people.
Autry admits he asks each officer to make five "contacts" per shift - not arrests or tickets, not a quota, but only "contacts." The new state law, which went into effect this fall, says a town can't generate more than 50 percent of its revenue from traffic enforcement.
Autry said his report to Cromwell's Board of Trustees in November showed 57 tickets totaling $6,678. "But if you divide that by three shifts, it's not even one ticket per shift," Autry said. "And all that is not collected. "The judge can throw some out or reduce the fines on others."
The town is being advised by Seminole attorney Dale Elsener; the judge in their municipal court is Wewoka attorney John Lively.
Cromwell's budget for the same period wasn't available. New City Clerk Lori Harrison, on the job for less than a month, said neither of the last two city clerks had lasted for more than a few months and that she had not yet been able to locate all the records. Asked to view her check register, Harrison said many expenditures had not even been entered. She said she hopes to have a financial report ready for the town board by the time of their meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at town hall.
A Cromwell area resident has asked to be on the agenda to complain of his recent arrest for parking in a restricted, or handicap, zone. Don McGehee said he'll ask for the resignation of the police chief.
He and others have been circulating a petition through the area asking the town board to fire the police chief. By midweek, he had 70 signatures. "A lot of people are afraid to sign, afraid of retribution," McGehee said. "One woman who signed has had two tickets; Greg Parker received a warning last night. "It looks like retaliation to me."
McGehee's personal problems with the Cromwell Police Department began last August when he was forced to stand by and watch his niece get arrested outside the city limits for failing to appear in court for a traffic violation. Both he and his niece, Lynette Cruce, filed tort claims against the city asking for $100,000 each. They claim they were harassed, and that she was illegally arrested, falsely imprisoned, intentionally inflicted with emotional distress, deprived of civil rights.
McGehee said Cruce's arrest was at a rodeo arena outside the city limits and that Cruce, dressed in shorts, was inappropriately searched. He alleges that Cromwell officers have gone as far as Chandler to arrest people for crimes such as seatbelt violation if they don't appear in court.
Seminole County Sheriff Joe Craig said he had admonished the Cromwell chief on two occasions for serving misdemeanor warrants outside their jurisdiction. "The proper procedure would be to notify the law enforcement agency which has jurisdiction and ask an officer or deputy to accompany them," Craig said. Asked if he would send a deputy to accompany a city officer with a warrant for a seatbelt violation, Craig was slow to answer. "Well ... if they had a warrant signed by a judge, I guess I would," he said. The Cromwell chief said his officers had only once served a warrant outside their jurisdiction and that since the sheriff had spoken to him about it, the practice had been stopped. However, Craig said he spoke to Autry on at least two occasions about the practice - after McGehee's arrest last August and again on Nov. 20.
Craig was asked about an incident in which a Cromwell officer brought two Mexican men to the county jail in November. The officer asked that the men be jailed for having no tag light on their car. "The jailer called me at home to ask me about it and I said I didn't think that was a jailable offense," Craig said. "The officer insisted so the jailer booked them in, but then called Immigration, who told him to let them go."
The sheriff said he'd been receiving numerous calls and complaints from people in the Cromwell area asking him to intervene. "I've had calls to my home at night, asking me to come up there and arrest the officers," he said. "I tell them this is a matter for the Cromwell Board of Trustees." But if the town benefits from the enthusiastic law enforcement, will they be inclined to reprimand their employee? Mayor Wanita Wimberly said Cromwell has no speed trap and no problems with law enforcement.
One problem could be the cost of at least one of their fines. Two years ago Cromwell's town board was discussing the state law that a municipality may charge no more than $10 for speeding less than 10 miles over the limit on a state highway running through the "outskirts" of their town. Cromwell's fine is $100, unless it's a school zone, when the fine is $117. SH 56 through Cromwell is mostly school zone, which is exempt from the "outskirts" clause in the state law. The agenda for Monday's meeting includes a vote on lowering the school zone speed limit to 25 from 30.
Other state laws outline how quickly the rate of speed may be reduced; a speed trap exists if the difference between "adjacent speed limits" is more than 10 mph. Autry said tickets are not a high priority in Cromwell. "Contrary to what they're saying, we do not go down and sit under I-40 and run radar," Autry said. "I-40 goes under the bridge in our city limits. Theoretically, we could go down to the ground under the bridge to enforce the law, but we don't. "We understand I-40 is the troopers' responsibility."
However, when asked about an incident recently when State Representative candidate Greg Parker said he observed a Cromwell reserve officer chasing a car on I-40, Autry said the pursuit was for an infraction on SH 56. Parker, who followed the officer for a ways and then stopped on the side of the road to write down what he'd seen, was then "contacted" by police. "He pursued behind and scared our officer," Autry said. "We've just had a state trooper killed. Everybody is a little paranoid right now."
"The officer asked me what I was doing sitting there and I told him I was just talking on my cell phone," Parker said. "When I pulled onto SH 56, he gave me a warning for improper display of tag." Parker has a personalized tag and had his official tag with him as required by law, but hadn't yet put on the new year sticker.
McGehee said he plans to file a civil rights lawsuit about his problems in Cromwell. He said Autry had threatened to arrest him for "flapping my jaws" and he was arrested for parking in a restricted, or handicap, zone. "Everybody parks in front of city hall, including the officers," McGehee said. He refused to sign the ticket and was taken to Wewoka city jail before he changed his mind. His vehicle was impounded in the incident.
He alleges that none of the police force is CLEET-certified and that it is illegal for them to carry guns, although they do, he said. Autry said non-certified reserves have all the authority of certified professional officers when on-duty and that they have one year to become certified. The sheriff said he wasn't sure how far the law goes, but said the rule for his reserves is that they can carry a gun only when with a commissioned officer.
"Cromwell in the early '20s was supposed to be a wicked town," Parker said. "My great-grandfather was in law enforcement there before Bill Tilghman and we hear that he was pretty unscrupulous. "What we have here is history repeating itself."
If the Department of Public Safety finds Parker's right, they could submit a report to the state attorney general and the Oklahoma Highway Patrol could be asked to step in as primary law enforcement "for such time as determined by the (Public Safety) Commissioner."