Connie Schultz | Cut the Budget? Then Arm the Citizens, Judge Says

You may have heard the latest those-folks-are-crazy story coming out of my home county in Ohio.

It started two weeks ago with a local television station’s tiny sound bite starring Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Alfred Mackey. The judge was asked what advice he’d give to the 100,000 or so residents after budget cuts left them with only one sheriff’s cruiser to patrol about 700 square miles along Lake Erie.

“Arm themselves,” the judge said slowly. “Be very careful. Be vigilant. Get in touch with your neighbors, because we’re going to have to look after each other.”

Oh, boy. Pass the grits and thank God you don’t live in Ashtabula County, right?

I was born and raised in Ashtabula County, and my three siblings and extended family still live there. Both of my parents are buried in a tiny cemetery just outside Andover. Like so many residents of Ashtabula County, my family has had an up-close-and-personal view of the area’s climbing crime rate. Five years ago, someone slashed all of my dad’s tires on his car in the driveway. Earlier this year, one of my relatives had all her front windows blown out.

So Judge Mackey’s comments resonated for a lot of residents there. He also urged neighbors to organize anti-crime block watch groups and emphasized safety, but you’re forgiven for not knowing that, because it didn’t get as much play until Plain Dealer reporter Sandra Livingston talked to the judge.

“Do these things lawfully and you may need to get a firearm to protect yourself,” he told Livingston. “If you do so, then make sure you are competent to handle it. Don’t put anybody else unnecessarily at risk.”

But the story blazing across the country is about one judge in Ohio telling residents to get their guns. Now all kinds of people think my people are nuts.

The thing is the problems of Ashtabula County are the same problems visiting a load of hurt on communities all across America. The difference is that in Ashtabula County, there’s a judge named Mackey who had the nerve to talk about the consequences when budget cuts whittle away at law enforcement. Too bad we relied on a judge for breaking news.

Mackey doesn’t regret saying it, and he won’t take it back. The 68-year-old judge grew up on a dairy farm in the county. He went away to attend college and law school and then served as a Marine in Vietnam before returning. From his perch on the bench, he’s seen too much decline in the county he loves.

“There are a lot of hardworking people here, and these are tough times,” he told me. “We used to bend metal up here and mold plastic for automobiles. Our port used to be busy, too. I worked one summer on the Great Lakes carrying ore from Michigan to Ohio.

“Now the jobs are going and gone. If you lose your job, it’s hard to find a new one. We’re one of the poorest counties in the state. We have more foreclosures every year. We have furlough days at the courthouse. When I heard the sheriff was down to one cruise car per shift, I thought people needed to know the gravity of the situation.”

The judge’s point, of course, is that no community should have to rely on its citizens to maintain law and order, but that’s what happens when government services get cut and cut and cut. Criminals get emboldened, and good people get scared.

Sheriff Billy Johnson, who’s threatening to sue county commissioners over lack of funding, said he hopes voters will approve a sales tax increase on the May ballot. Maybe then he could put five cruisers back on the road.

In the meantime, some worry that Judge Mackey’s warning telegraphs an invitation to criminals looking for easy prey. But Charles Riley, a Monroe Township trustee in the county, is all over that one. Sounding like a gunslinger at the Ol’ Kook Corral, he told reporter Livingston that when it comes to arming the citizenry, size matters:

“They should use shotguns, not handguns, and that way we don’t have to send (criminals) to court or to jail because they’ll be dead.”

Now see? That’s how those-folks-are-crazy stories get started.

But that doesn’t mean they’re true.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and essayist for Parade magazine.