With a lack of off-duty police officers signing up to escort funeral processions through town, Summerville Police Chief Jon Rogers is proposing phasing out the service altogether. However, council members and one funeral home director did not seem too keen on the idea Monday night.
Rogers brought the topic forward Feb. 6 during the public safety committee at town hall, saying funeral escorts are an off-duty job and the department has been having trouble getting off-duty officers to sign up. The department started looking at traffic flow in the town as well as how police departments handle funeral escorts nationally and locally. Rogers said there are a lot of local agencies that have gotten away from the practice.
He said it takes a lot of resources to pull off the police escorts and in the past, with not enough officers, they are not able to block every intersection as a funeral procession travels through town and there have even been collisions in which officers have gotten hurt.
“Regardless of the circumstances because of what we’re doing and we’re not able to block every intersection, we’re actually at fault for the collisions,” he said.
Rogers said they typically have only two officers sign up.
Rogers told council members he sent a letter to all the funeral homes the department has serviced in the last year saying the service will start winding down and then stop around March 1. He said they would work with funeral homes for the funerals of dignitaries.
Rogers said there is a $50 per officer fee to provide the service.
Council members had a number of questions and concerns. Councilwoman Christine Czarnik said the biggest problem she has with the policy is discontinuing it unless it involves a dignitary.
“I don’t think we can discriminate in that way,” she said, adding, “Someone’s status in terms of whether they’re a dignitary or not really doesn’t dictate the kind of service that would be necessary to move the procession through town.”
“I just think this is an expected public service, I think it’s going to be more safe and more efficient to have our police officers directing a procession than people trying to wing it,” she also said.
Councilman Bill McIntosh questioned if it’s a matter of whether the deceased is a dignitary, “or does it really go to the size of a funeral?”
“It does strike me that…even with this policy change that there will be times, whether the person meets any of our definitions of a dignitary, where if you’ve got 1,000 people at a funeral, 800 people at a funeral…I would think Summerville Police Department would have to respond to that in some way,” he said.
McIntosh later said he would like to have more information on the matter.
Hearing comments from the other council members, Councilman Aaron Brown said he thinks this is a service the town needs to provide, and suggested having the chief get with the town administrator and work on the amount the town is charging per officer – and maybe eliminate smaller funerals based on increased fees – and work on an incentive to get more officers involved.
“I think the police department is in a much better position to ensure safety as opposed to a funeral home director trying to do it himself, so I think we have a moral obligation more or less to make sure the public is safe,” he said.
Rogers agreed to talk to the town administrator.
Tony Tyler, funeral director of James A. Dyal Funeral Home, also spoke during the meeting and asked council members to consider keeping some type of police escort in mind, saying he is “most definitely” in favor of the escorts.
Tyler said everybody is a dignitary.
“I understand what the chief is saying,” he said, “but no one’s more important than someone else, and I’m just afraid if you cut out the escorts and you do do a service for a dignitary the general public’s going to see that and say, ‘why didn’t my dad get that?’ or ‘why didn’t my mother get that?’”
Brown said the council is going to “chew on this” some more and asked Tyler to bring feedback from other funeral homes as well.