By Margie Wuebker
Mercer County Sheriff's Deputy Jerry Wolford, a 131ò2 -year veteran, has been suspended without pay for violating the department's pursuit policy.
The action comes in the wake of a high-speed pursuit Feb. 23 involving a 15-year-old boy wanted in connection with a probation violation. The youth, a reported runaway, sustained minor injuries when the car he was driving crashed into a St. Marys home.
The 44-year-old Wolford and his lawyer, William Kluge of Lima, met with Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey on Friday morning to discuss the disciplinary action, which involves suspension without pay for 60 calendar days (40 working days) and a last-chance agreement calling for termination in the event of another serious policy violation.
The suspension goes into effect Tuesday, and Wolford is scheduled to sign the last-chance agreement Monday. Signing was delayed until then to allow Kluge and Columbus attorney Marc Fishel to negotiate wording in the document. Fishel is a member of a Columbus-based law firm the sheriff's office retains for personnel-related matters.
Grey could have chosen termination, but settled on suspension, which he also labels "harsh disciplinary action." "I am trying to be fair to Jerry and fair to the taxpayers of this county," he explained. "Jerry has a lot of good qualities and investigative skills; he needs to utilize those same skills in his decision making. I feel giving him one last chance is the appropriate thing to do."
Wolford and two other deputies, who face lesser disciplinary action in connection with the pursuit, have cooperated throughout the investigation, Grey said.
Before taking the disciplinary action, the sheriff reviewed reports from an earlier pre-disciplinary hearing, taped radio transmissions and footage of the chase captured by cameras mounted in deputies' cruisers. Other factors in the decision included analyzing the deputy's past performance and violation of the restricted pursuit policy.
Wolford has been cited for just one minor policy violation involving proper wearing of uniform insignias during Grey's administration. However, the deputy's past performance problems have cost taxpayers in excess of $200,000 due to lawsuits against the deputy, according to Grey.
The deputy was found guilty of excessive force in U.S. District Court in June 2001 stemming from an altercation with then Celina resident Richard Craw, who sustained a hip injury. The county settled another lawsuit involving Wolford in August 2000 after he was accused of forcibly removing Celina resident Kye Orick from a car during a traffic stop. She sustained numerous minor injuries in the process.
He was not disciplined in either instance, although the deputy received an unpaid two-day suspension in the summer of 1999 after he drew a weapon during the course of a traffic stop. An investigation determined he was justified in pulling the gun but his "abusive and demeaning language" violated department policy.
Grey plans to meet with all patrol deputies on Wednesday to review radio transmissions, camera footage and the pursuit policy in general. Grey put into place a pursuit policy in 2001 that says deputy's are not allowed to chase, unless the offender has committed a felony offense of violence.
"The vast majority of police pursuits are for minor infractions," the sheriff noted. "A pursuit ends one of two ways -- the suspect gets away or there is a crash. Both outcomes are bad."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in 2001 that 365 people died on America's highways due to police pursuits. A total of 140 of those people were innocent victims who were simply using the highways at the time.