(Springfield News Leader) – The language got ugly Tuesday as local officials continue to spar over the Greene County Jail.
Springfield Mayor Bob Stephens held a news conference Tuesday morning in which he blamed Greene County Sheriff Jim Arnott for the serious injuries that a Springfield police officer sustained over the weekend.
In a letter released hours later, Arnott called the mayor’s statements “slanderous.”
Police say Officer Clinton Laws was pinned in a truck and dragged 150 yards by a fleeing suspect on Saturday night in north Springfield.
The man accused of dragging the officer, Jeffrey Lyon, 31, was arrested 28 times by Springfield police, 15 times for municipal charges, according to the mayor. He was often released with a ticket because of a policy in which the Greene County Jailstopped holding suspects who were arrested on municipal charges.
Stephens said Tuesday the officer’s injuries are “at the feet of Sheriff Jim Arnott.”
Arnott has said he does not have the space to take municipal prisoners and let other offenders out.
In his Tuesday letter, Arnott said he is “deeply offended the Springfield mayor would stoop to this level by making such slanderous statements for his own personal and political agenda.”
In his letter, Arnott attached a Facebook post from the Springfield Police Officers Association, which says it does not support the mayor’s statements.
“Mayor, if you are going to make Brother Laws’ injuries about political agendas and finger pointing, then you can go ahead and pull yourself up a seat at this table of blame,” it says, “because there’s plenty to go around.”
It asks why no money has been spent on housing municipal prisoners while the jail issue has been ongoing, especially in regard to $4 million in excess revenue the city has not yet decided how to spend.
The letter also goes into past disputes over police staffing and wage disputes. It also essentially blamed Stephens for not keeping Springfield safe.
“So we ask you, has Springfield become a safer place to live while under your tenure?” the post says. “We believe the crime stats speak for themselves.”
The county commission also responded to the mayor’s accusation.
“The mayor does not understand the workings of the criminal justice system or he wouldn’t have come to that conclusion,” Presiding Commission Bob Cirtin said.
Police Chief Paul Williams declined to comment on the day’s events.
Stephens said the city has tried to negotiate with the county in recent months, but has not come near a solution.
“We’re through talking,” Stephens said. Instead of negotiations, the city hired a law firm, Hall Ansley PC, to represent it in the ongoing lawsuit.
Stephens said the case has become large enough, and dragged on long enough, that council felt it was time to hire a private firm to take the lead.
“It will certainly take months,” Stephens said. “I hope it can be done in a year. I hope and pray that there are no more injuries to our citizens or our police officers. If that does occur, it will continue to be the fault of the sheriff.”
Greene County and its largest city have been squabbling about the county jail since the doors opened in 2001. But the tension has increased over the last 12 months.
Sheriff Arnott said in April of last year he no longer had space to house Springfield’s municipal offenders, and city officials countered by saying Arnott doesn’t have a choice.
Stephens made several statements Tuesday indicating the sheriff’s motivation for the policy was not as much an issue of space as money.
“I think there’s a feeling on council that when the sheriff says it’s not about the money, it’s about the money,” Stephens said.
He said that was also reflected in one of the recent jail proposals from Greene County, which said the city could pay $45 per day, per prisoner and be guaranteed up to 20 beds.
“How can they guarantee 20 beds when they’ve said all along they don’t have any beds?,” Stephens said. “They’ve filled them up with federal prisoners.”
Arnott has regularly denied that he’s refusing municipal prisoners so he has more bed space for federal prisoners — which are more financially beneficial because of the money the federal government pays to house them.
Stephens said council has often talked about the need to get a resolution to the jail issue “before someone gets hurt.”
“Well, someone did get hurt,” he said. “But it wasn’t a citizen, it was one of our own police officers.”