CLEVELAND - One judge's solution for citizens feeling less secure because of budget cuts in an Ohio county: Carry a gun.
Judge Alfred Mackey of Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court advised residents Friday to be vigilant and arm themselves because the number of deputies has been cut about in half because of a tight budget. He also urged neighbors to organize anti-crime block watch groups.
"They have to be law-abiding, and if they are not familiar with firearms they need to take a safety course so they are not a threat to their family and friends and themselves," Mackey said Friday.
Mackey, whose comments were first broadcast Thursday by WKYC-TV in Cleveland, was expressing concerns with budget cuts that have trimmed the sheriff's department from 112 to 49 deputies in the county, which is Ohio's largest by land area.
Asked by WKYC how people should respond to the cuts and limited patrols, he said, "Arm themselves. Be very careful and just be vigilant because we're going to have to look after each other."
Andrew Pollis, who teaches law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, saw the original TV clip of Mackey and said it was clear the judge wasn't advocating vigilantism.
Still, Pollis said, snippets of the comments could be misunderstood "as a license, if you will, to engage in conduct which we as a society collectively would not want."
In Akron, Summit County Common Pleas Judge Patricia Cosgrove, president-elect of the Ohio Common Pleas Judges Association, said she was surprised by Mackey's suggestion.
"That's scary to me," she said. "I don't know what the situation in Ashtabula County is. I personally would never — that's a personal choice in terms of carrying a weapon."
With deputies assigned to transport prisoners and serve warrants, only one radio car is assigned to patrol the county of 720 square miles, excluding municipalities with police departments. The sheriff's patrol area covers most of the county, the judge said Friday.
Mackey said the response to his comments has been positive in the mostly rural county between Cleveland and Erie, Pa.
"People in this county are hunters," said Mackey, who grew up on a farm with rifles and still owns firearms. "People have familiarity with firearms."
Messages seeking comment on the judge's remarks were left for Sheriff William Johnson and county commissioners.
Johnson has threatened to sue the commissioners to have some of his department's funding restored.
The jail in the county of about 100,000 people has held as many as 140 prisoners, but the number has dipped to about 30 because of reductions in the guard staff. About 700 people are on a waiting list to serve time in the jail.
Ohio has had a concealed handgun law for five years, and from October to December the Ashtabula County sheriff issued 54 licenses. Twenty-eight licenses were renewed.