AIKEN -- Taking a chapter from the Old West when sheriffs rounded up a posse to capture outlaws, Sheriff Howard Sellers is gathering up his own platoon to answer an increasing workload.
Working on an idea he has dreamed of since he was first elected in 1992, the Aiken County sheriff has recruited five volunteers and established a core group who should help refashion the way the agency operates for years to come.
The beginning of the program is expected to materialize with house checks for residents on vacation. It should blossom into a plethora of services -- from search and rescue missions and traffic control to neighborhood patrols and fingerprint clerks.
"The Posse represents the ultimate in community policing," Sheriff Sellers said. "It becomes even more critical as our workload increases and manpower does not."
Dan Bullington with Security Federal Bank serves as chairman of the new Aiken County Posse, organizing meetings about once a month.
He recently returned from training in Arizona, where Yavapai County Sheriff Buck Buchanan has successfully used a posse for more than three years now.
"It's almost like a neighborhood watch group, but a level above that," Mr. Bullington said. "It has power from the sheriff's office, a marked car, uniforms. And it can actually communicate back to the sheriff's office."
In Arizona, the Yavapai County Posse holds regular meetings, publishes a newsletter and gives out service awards.
"And it's not all men," Mr. Bullington said. "I rode with a lady whose husband works ... and she tends to her horses and wanted something else to do.
"They have posses for everything -- an airplane posse, a jeep posse, a horse posse, anything you can name."
The Aiken County Posse could back up the sheriff in several ways:
Helping at accident scenes. As it is, deputies answer wreck calls and secure the scene while a Highway Patrol trooper is called. Many times, a deputy is wasting time as he sits with the wreck waiting for the responding trooper.
"There's nobody hurt ... and you've got to sit there and wait for a police report," Mr. Bullington said.
Calling out a trained Posse member who knows traffic control frees up the deputy to answer more important calls.
Directing traffic at schools. The Posse member would not write tickets, but could report reckless drivers.
"You don't want to use them like a rental security agency. We are not trying to replace Sizemore Security (a local agency)," Mr. Bullington said. "People want to come volunteer; they don't want to stand around for six hours."
Searching for missing people.
The community showed an outpouring of assistance when 2-year-old Catherine Anne Jackson got lost in the Hitchcock Woods in October and 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia was missing from his Georgetown Villas home in North Augusta two months ago. Volunteers even offered to bring horses to search Hitchcock Woods.
But helpful residents could contaminate a potential crime scene. Trained Posse members would better know how to handle delicate areas.
Other potential ideas include looking in on latch-key children, assisting in water and hunter safety classes, and providing specialized vehicles or transportation for special operations.
"We want people to come up with ideas," Sheriff Sellers said. "If it is to be a successful adjunct, it shouldn't take more energy for the sheriff's office to manage."
That's where the organizational structure comes in. The first five members of the Sheriff's Posse will help build a foundation. Each of them comes from varied backgrounds.
Mr. Bullington is a commercial lender in Aiken, father of a 16-month-old son and community leader in several organizations.
"I've known the sheriff for a while ... and he just started telling me this idea," Mr. Bullington said. "We didn't talk about it for three or four months and then it just started rolling."
Tom Glover is a New Ellenton day-care owner; Pat Sullivan is mayor-elect of Jackson; Greg Kendrick is a North Augusta business owner; and Gene Jones is a retired Savannah River Site inspector living in Beech Island.
Mr. Jones, 72, decided to join his son and son-in-law when they entered reserve deputy training recently, and that's how he got interested in the Posse.
"I feel like I'm giving some good service for a good cause because they really need help. They get so many calls," Mr. Jones said.
He said the Posse will not be out to intimidate or arrest people.
"The Posse would never be aggressive. We would be reporting anything that didn't look normal. This will be a deterrent to a crime being started before it happens," he said.
The Posse is bound for growth following the graduation of 24 students of the first Citizen Academy, residents who took a 10-week class to learn the ins and outs of the agency.
Of course, those interested in the program must undergo background checks and training.
Mr. Bullington said the community must be interested enough to help.
"You can't beg somebody to improve their own neighborhood situation. You can't force it," he said. "The sheriff can't force it, I can't force it, the Posse can't force it."
Ultimately, the reward for Posse members will be improving the quality of life for them and their community.
"The reward is that you roll up on a broken down car. It's got the hood raised and it's steaming, and this lady's standing there and she's got two kids in the car and she's out there by herself. That's the reward: You can actually get her some help. It may have been 30 minutes before somebody came by. That's the reward and that's pretty much all you need."
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