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News covering policy and issues related to city and county governments in the Ozarks.

Officer's Injuries Result of Jail Issue, Mayor Says, Sheriff Calls Comments Slanderous

Scott Harvey

Springfield Mayor Bob Stephens says injuries sustained by a police officer following a recent assault could have been prevented were it not for the gridlock over housing municipal prisoners in the county jail.

Officer Clinton Laws was dragged some 150 yards by a pickup Saturday night after making contact with the driver of a suspicious vehicle. During a press conference Tuesday morning, Stephens assigned blame to Sheriff Jim Arnott and county commissioners for the injuries to Laws, noting Arnott’s decision last year to stop accepting municipal prisoners at the jail.

“Prior to the sheriff’s unilateral actions, he [the suspect] would have been taken to the combined city-county jail facility. The suspect would have also gone to court and quite likely would not have been in a position to be arrested again,” said Stephens.

The suspect, Jeffery Lyon Jr., had been arrested 28 times in the past year, according to Stephens. He adds that 15 of those times were on municipal warrants. However, in each of those 15 instances Stephens says police officers were forced to issue Lyon a ROR, or release on your own recognizance, in the field rather than transport the suspect to jail. That would have held Lyon overnight in jail pending an appearance before a judge. 

“If Jeffery Lyon had been arrested on county, state or federal charges rather than city charges he would have been taken to jail. Because he committed them inside our city limits and municipal warrants were issued, our police officers were forced by the actions of the sheriff to release him to prey on other Springfield citizens,” said Stephens.   

Speaking to KSMU, Greene County Presiding Commissioner Bob Cirtin called the claims against his office ludicrous.

“It is disheartening to the commission and the sheriff that the mayor would use the injury of a Springfield police office to further his own political agenda,” said Cirtin.

In a statement, Sheriff Arnott offered a similar reaction.

"I am deeply offending the Springfield mayor would stoop to this level by making such slanderous statements for his own personal and political agenda."

The sheriff added that the mayor's views are not shared by all members of the Springfield Police Department, citing communications with various individuals. He declined to comment further due to the ongoing lawsuit, but did cite a Facebook post from the Springfield Police Officer's Association that points the finger at Mayor Stephens for inaction and questions why the city isn't using excess revenue to assist in a resolution.

"Our criminal justice system is broken and pointing fingers isn't going to fix it," the post said. "But, sitting down as members of a community committed to making Springfield a safer place to live; that's an effort we can get behind. Not this blaming the Sheriff for the acts of another man."

The mayor, meanwhile, said that since the jail issue came to a head last spring, Springfield Police Officers “are so frustrated they can’t see straight.”

“They became police officers to serve and to protect. And they’re out there serving but they’re not being able to protect, and that is very frustrating because of the system across the street at the county,” he said.

Sheriff Arnott had stopped accepting municipal inmates at the jail last April due to overcrowding issues. The city filed suit against the county in July. Negotiations between both sides since have failed to reach a consensus.  

On Tuesday, Mayor Stephens said the City Council and other Greene County municipalities are tired of waiting. He says the city has retained the legal services of Hall Ansley PC to “carry this matter forward as rapidly as possible in the courts.”

Stephens continued, “And in the meantime, Officer Laws remains hospitalized, and we pray that the county’s unilateral actions do not result in injury to additional Springfield citizens or officers before the courts can settle this matter.”

Laws is receiving treatment for third degree burns, among other injuries, at Mercy Hospital. Stephens says Laws faces weeks, if not months, of treatment.

At issue is a 1997 intergovernmental agreement between both the city and county over the housing of municipal inmates.  According to the lawsuit, on July 16, 1997, “The parties agreed that the jail would accept and house, with limited exceptions, all Springfield Municipal prisoners and that the funding for housing the Springfield Municipal prisoners would consist solely of the proceeds collected from the tax approved by Greene County voters on November 4, 1997.”

The city claims the county is bound by the agreement to house municipal prisoners. Sheriff Arnott, according to court filings, argues Missouri law mandates the jail take all federal and state prisoners, and only when there is room in the facility will municipal prisoners be accepted.

One proposed solution from the county offers 20 beds for municipal prisons at $45 per inmate. But Mayor Stephens says that’s “over and above” the tax currently collected by the city from citizens to go into such law enforcement operations.

Cirtin said the city has not "communicated anything with us regarding our proposal."

Late Tuesday, the sheriff's office reported that as of early that morning 430, or 73 percent of the current inmate population at the Greene County Jail, were inmates arrested for a crime committed in Springfield and presented by the Springfield  Police Department. The remaining numbers are as follows: 114 inmates arrested for a crime committed in the unincorporated areas of Greene County & presented by the Greene County Sheriff’s Office; 16 inmates arrested for a crime & presented by the Missouri State Highway Patrol; and 29 inmates arrested for a crime which occurred in a surrounding municipality and presented by that municipal police department.

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