NAVASSA – “Why are we having problems with the police department?”
That was the main question retired Navassa town councilman Frank Willis asked the current incarnation of the board at the end of Thursday night’s monthly meeting.
Though councilman Thurman Everett said there were no problems with the department, Willis did not find that answer satisfactory, considering the lack of a police chief and the fact the town has just one officer on duty.
“We keep changing chiefs,” Willis told the council during public comment. “We’ve had three police chiefs over the last few years. Are they quitting? Are you firing them, or what?”
Willis acknowledged his questions wouldn’t be answered by the town council, but also said Navassa citizens are being left in the dark on public safety issues.
Navassa has been without a police chief since Darryll DeCotis retired in May. DeCotis served 17 months as the city’s top law enforcement officer after his hiring in November of 2021.
Navassa Town Attorney Norwood Blanchard told Port City Daily Friday that DeCotis had accumulated enough service time to retire. Prior to his arrival in the town, DeCotis spent nine years with the Cary Police Department, and served as police chief in Bolton, before spending several years in the private sector working corporate security.
DeCotis still maintained his certification, working with the Town of Chadbourn and the Reliant Special Police Department.
“He had only been with Navassa for a short period of time, but he had been around much longer than that,” Blanchard said.
Applications opened to fill his position in late May. The council went into closed session at Thursday’s meeting to discuss the matter, but did announce there were 12 applicants during the regular meeting. They agreed to form a hiring committee to review the police chief applications.
Port City Daily reached out to Willis about the police chief search. He refused to answer any questions and referred all matters to Mayor Pro Tem Jerry Merrick, who did not respond by press.
PCD also asked the Town of Navassa for DeCotis’ retirement letter, or any correspondence prior to DeCotis leaving the department. The town sent a notice, signed by the mayor pro-tem, announcing the chief’s departure, indicating his last day was May 2.
“Chief DeCotis worked tirelessly to improve the town’s police department and we wish him the best of luck in his endeavors,” it detailed.
Navassa’s problems maintaining a public safety presence date back to October 2020, when council members voted to terminate their partnership with the Northwest Police Department. The two departments worked together on traffic checkpoints and helped each other have access to new equipment each department would not have procured on its own.
The chief at the time, Preston Howell, who was with the department since 2013, resigned in May 2021. Stephen Conrad was made the interim chief but abruptly resigned on July 20 of that year.
One day later, Eric Cinotti of Leland was arrested after responding to a call in a Navassa patrol car. He was later indicted with six counts of impersonating a law enforcement officer, one count of operating a motor vehicle with a blue light and one count reckless driving to endanger – all felonies.
Concern from Navassa residents about whether or not actual law enforcement officers were driving the town’s vehicle was a prime impetus for then-Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram and District Attorney Jon David to attend a public hearing to urge the council to enter a contract with the sheriff’s office, establishing a dedicated presence in Navassa.
The council voted not to enter into a partnership with the county at that time. Blanchard postulated town council members didn’t want to lose control of Navassa’s streets to the county.
“One of the complaints we heard from citizens from time to time over the years about policing in Navassa was the emphasis on policing things like expired registrations,” Blanchard said. “That type of policing burdens lower-income people much more than upper-income residents, or even the middle class. That might have influenced the council’s decision not to enter into a contract with Brunswick County.”
BCSO deputies still respond to calls in Navassa, but the response times are 12 minutes or longer, especially when deputies are assigned to an entire county, rather than dedicated to one area.
Former councilman Willis made it clear he was concerned about the town and its people at Thursday’s meeting.
“How are the people of the town going to know what’s going on when they ask a question, and can’t get an answer?” he asked. “The town looks bad, really bad.”
Everett told Willis the town’s issues with law enforcement are no different from any other small town in the state. The struggle to find a chief came down to one thing: simple economics.
He said because Navassa is a small town with a small budget, qualified young law enforcement officers see it as a training opportunity, before moving on to larger departments that pay more. The search for a chief was no different. According to Everett, at least one applicant declined to move forward in the current process.
“The money wasn’t sufficient for him,” Everett said. “Therefore, the position was not filled.”
The police chief makes around $31 an hour.
Navassa has one officer on staff and he makes about $40,000 per year.
Mayor Eulis Willis served as interim “administrative” chief to fill out paperwork for law enforcement officers prior to the hiring of DeCotis. It is not known if he is currently serving in this capacity or plans to return to that position until a new chief is hired.
The town has allotted $329,000 for public safety in the fiscal year 2023-2024 budget, which was passed unanimously by council members during the meeting.
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