JEFFERSON-Ashe County Sheriff’s deputies and special investigators are now afforded the option to have their home addresses removed from the county’s tax office website.
With the county’s new Geographic Information System in place, both novice and savvy computer users can obtain a picture of a house and other detailed information about any listed property in the county.
A North Carolina General Statute passed last year, however, means officers and other undercover agents can have their property information and address pulled from the public website, according to the Ashe County Sheriff’s Office.
Ultimately, law enforcement agencies said the withholding of this information protects law enforcement and their families. The information, however, is still deemed public record, according to authorities.
The Jefferson Post first learned of the sheriff’s office request to the tax office through a Freedom of Information Act request that gave the newspaper access to incoming and outgoing emails exchanged between the county commissioners in April.
In a mass email from Capt. Carolyn Gentry to a list of sheriff’s office personnel, she updated her contacts on the ongoing efforts by the sheriff’s office in redacting the home addresses of deputies, if they so requested. Det. William Sands, who is also a county commissioner, is clear copied on the email.
“With the new system at the tax office, anyone can go on their site and through Google Earth pull up a picture of your house, directions, all kinds of information,” Gentry wrote. “Thanks to William Sands, he has gotten the county and Keith (Little) to agree to take any officer or jailer’s property off the system to protect us.”
Sands said he did not lead the charge on the effort, but said he was approached by a few concerned deputies who wanted their information protected.
Sands said he then contacted attorney John Aldridge, of the North Carolina Sheriff’s Association, who said he didn’t see a reason why the sheriff’s office could not make a request to have the addresses blacked out on the website. He also got the green light from Ashe County Attorney John Kilby, said Sands.
The detective also referenced a North Carolina General Statute in supporting his work. Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly passed SB699, which amends state laws to prohibit disclosure of certain personal information about law enforcement officers.
And while the county’s GIS site doesn’t directly indicate whether a parcel of property is owned by a sworn law enforcement officer or other county employee, it does provide general information about county taxpayers – like who owns a particular parcel of property, when it was purchased and how much the owner paid for it – that could be used to determine where officers live.
In the past, the sheriff’s office narcotic officers have received personal and detailed threats from criminals at the center of their investigations.
“They’ve heard things like, ‘We will come get you or family’ and that sort of thing,” said Sands. “I’ve had it happen to me. They get paranoid. It’s dangerous.”
Some of the sheriff’s deputies have told Sands they often worry about their families at home during the long nightly patrol shifts.
“More than anything else, this is a safety issue,” said Ashe Sheriff James Williams. “There are several (officers) here that have had folks walk right into their yard by finding out where they lived. Some of the folks we deal with here are pretty bad people and are not always real happy about going to jail. It’s just a safety issue. I don’t want every Tom, Dick and Harry to be able to pull up and see where I live or where the rest of the guys live.”
Sands said he has pondered possible implications of the decision and if other county employees, like social workers, should be given that same right.
He said that decision, however, is not his to make.
Williams said he is aware that the public’s reaction might not be positive in regards to the sheriff’s office decision concerning the website. He said the dangerous nature of the job requires deputies to take that extra step in safeguarding their homes and loved ones.
“They are not out here dealing with what we do everyday,” said Williams.
Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.