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NC City May Disband Police In Scandal’s Wake

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(Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON/Getty Images)

(Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON/Getty Images)

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CHERRYVILLE, N.C. (AP) — For Ben Blackburn, the arrest of three Cherryville police officers and three other local men on bribery and extortion charges was more than embarrassing.

It was a like a “belly punch,” said Blackburn, who was hired last month as city manager.

“This was a terrible blow to the community,” he said.

In the wake of the indictments against the men in October, the financially-strapped city of 5,700 people is trying to decide whether to disband the police department.

If that happens, Cherryville would contract for law enforcement with Gaston County police, which provides services to unincorporated areas and a few municipalities.

City Council will make a decision within the next week, Blackburn said.

“Right now, the county is putting numbers together. … We’re just waiting on those numbers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the issue has divided the predominantly rural community about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte.

Some oppose disbanding the department, saying they’re worried about safety.

“How fast would they be here in an emergency?” said Lee Scott, 45, a mechanic. “Are you putting the public at risk?”

Others, though, support the idea because it would save money — and improve the community’s image.

“Do we really need a police department after everything that just happened?” asked Robert Jones, 32, a truck driver. “The county can do the job.”

Just a few months ago, few residents — if any — would have suggested disbanding the Cherryville police department.

But everything changed in October, when three Cherryville police officers, a Gaston County sheriff’s deputy and two other Cherryville men were arrested on bribery and extortion charges.

Four of the men — including two of the Cherryville officers — pleaded guilty Thursday in federal court in Charlotte. No sentencing date has been set, but they face up to 25 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.

Charges are still pending against the others.

Federal authorities haven’t disclosed a motive. But the indictments said the six offered protection for supposed criminals who transported stolen goods through Cherryville and beyond.

The indictments said three of the defendants collectively received more than $17,000 in cash payments to follow what they believed to be tractor-trailer loads of stolen goods as they moved within Gaston County, Charlotte and Cleveland County on state and interstate highways to cities in South Carolina.

After the men were arrested, Cherryville Police Chief Woody Burgess and a police captain were suspended with pay. Burgess resigned Oct. 31.

Meanwhile, the Gaston County District Attorney’s Office is looking at cases that relied on testimony from the officers who were arrested. It’s possible that some of those cases could be dismissed.

The events have stunned people in this tight-knit community. Some wondered if the poor economy played a role in the scandal. Cherryville was once a thriving community with textile plants and other manufacturing jobs. But in recent years, it has faced tough economic times. Most of the area’s textile plants have been shuttered, with production shifted overseas. Good-paying manufacturing jobs have been replaced by service industry positions — and many people are struggling to make ends meet.

Before the arrests, Cherryville had slashed the police budget to $1 million from $1.3 million. The department used to have 15 officers. Now it has 11.

“The revenue streams have really slowed down,” said Blackburn, who grew up in Cherryville and was hired after the scandal. “We’re like every city across the nation.”

Despite the economic troubles, Main Street — about three blocks long — is filled with shops and stores, including the Home Folks Cafe, a family-owned restaurant.

People are still talking about the scandal — and what to do about the police department.

“It was shocking,” said Jones, the truck driver. “You just have to wonder why they did it. Were they having financial problems? Was it greed? It’s just a shame.”

Blackburn said the community is “slowly coming back to normal.”

“In October, everybody was just surprised at the events that unfolded. … But the town is resilient,” he said, adding that the “love of Cherryville is the common thread that ties the community together.

“If you talk to folks, you see what makes this town tick. Yes, it was embarrassing. It was hurtful in October. But Cherryville is a bigger town than that. The people are bigger than that. They’re better than that.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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