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Goal of restructuring police, fire in Landis into public safety department becoming reality

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

LANDIS — When Public Safety Director Zachary Lechette started his job in December, the idea of fusing the police and fire departments into a joint operation was just a vision.

Fast forward a few months, and Lechette has hired the first public safety officer trained for both operations. Sgt. Dakota Toms of Goldsboro completed a five-month program through basic law enforcement training and as of June 30 can assist both police officers and firefighters on calls. In addition to the extra training needed for dual certification, officers have to meet certain standards each year to maintain their practice.

Toms said he was attracted to Landis because of camaraderie between both departments as a smaller agency.

Toms will soon be joined by Lt. Bryan Cook, who’s been a firefighter since 1992. Cook will begin the dual certification process in August to become the next public safety officer.

When Lechette, a former Gastonia Police Department supervisor, was hired, former interim Town Manager Leonard Barefoot said establishing the dual department was ideal for a town of Landis’ size because the town needed a full-time police chief and full-time fire chief. Landis town aldermen approved of Barefoot’s idea when he made the suggestion a year ago.

Lechette said he relied heavily on his combined law enforcement, military and advanced academic degrees to formulate what he calls a “partial integration” model. Former interim Police Chief Kevin Young was promoted to assistant public safety director in February, meaning both Lechette and Young were qualified to fulfill the leading roles across both departments.

“It allows us to do more with less as far as covering shifts and having coverages,” Lechette said. “I think it increases our availability during the day to our citizens and guests. Moving forward, I see us getting even more partially integrated. I have a goal — I think the town has a goal — at some point to see a public safety building one day where both departments are housed in one building.”

Lechette has been certified in emergency management and rescue services since 2008, and he served in the North Carolina National Guard from 2009 to 2015. Additionally, he worked with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation as well as emergency management services in Gaston and Pitt counties. He also has a bachelor’s degree in criminology from the University of North Carolina—Wilmington, a master’s in criminal justice from Fayetteville State University and a doctorate in criminal justice and organizational management from Nova Southeastern University, a private university in Florida.

Lechette said it’s important to keep the dual certification voluntary for now because some officers or firefighters may be most comfortable sticking to their department. Those receiving the certification to serve alongside police and firefighters, however, receive pay increases.

Landis joins a handful of other towns with public safety departments, including Morganton and Butner. For other towns considering a consolidation, it can be cost-prohibitive, especially when officers are taken off their regular duties for several months to receive dual certification, Lechette said.

He praised the town for its approval of a yearly increase of $250,000 in the budget to fund three additional full-time firefighters. Once filled, Lechette said a full staff will include nine full-time and paid firefighters and 12 volunteers. A full staff also allows the department to have three firefighters on all three shifts, which is not common for departments of Landis’ size, he added.

Additionally, the town voted in February to use $14,400 from surplus vehicle sales in the 2020-21 budget to purchase 13 body cameras and 13 stun guns for Landis public safety officers. A total of $8,000 would be charged in the 2021-22 fiscal year budget, with a cost of $22,000 each year after for the remainder of the five-year contract. Town Manager Diane Seaford said Landis would be the first small agency in the county to buy Axon Body Camera 3 and Taser 7 technology. Both devices are used by the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office and the Salisbury Police Department.

At its July 12 meeting, Seaford announced the town would grant officers working the third shift an additional $1 per hour, effective July 1. The raise applies to the shift worked and not the officer. Lechette said such a move is another incentive for recruiting and retaining officers — an issue experienced in other police departments, like Salisbury. And with a public safety department, he said, officers can receive more advancements and opportunities they may not have elsewhere.

“Our sense of community and support that we get is second to none,” Lechette said. “We’re on the smaller side, which, ironically, has kind of worked to our benefit because we’re able to take this process slowly and methodically and be able to do more with sometimes more limited resources than a bigger department.”

Lechette said he is proud the department rolled out well-received community programs, including drug take-back boxes, safe exchange zones and car seat inspections and installations. Additionally, at its Aug. 3 National Night Out, Landis will showcase services from both police and firefighters as one entity.

The town recently hired Anastasiia Shumeiko, who began Friday, to serve as a patrol officer to replace detective Sgt. Shane Safrit, who served the town for more than a decade before announcing relocation during a town board meeting in May. Lechette said hiring Shumeiko means a full staff of 14 police officers, with all but three working full-time.

Shumeiko credited the town with sticking out to her as a place that shared her philosophy of community policing.

“Especially coming off the heels of everything that happened in Landis, we’re really trying to rebrand and reimagine what Landis can be,” Lechette said. “This has all been a whirlwind within seven months. Typically, government doesn’t move at a rocketship pace, and here we are seven months in and we have almost, in a sense, reimagined how the entire departments look.”

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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