Lexington funeral homes oppose proposal to cut police escorts

bfortune@herald-leader.comMay 28, 2011 

Lexington funeral directors oppose a city proposal to eliminate funeral procession escorts by on-duty police officers, saying the cost-cutting idea could lead to serious traffic accidents.

"It is very dangerous to take a procession through town without an escort," said Tom Hisle, general manager of Kerr Brothers Funeral Home with locations on East Main Street and Harrodsburg Road. "Getting 40 or 50 cars through intersections is hazardous without an escort."

Two traffic control officers routinely lead a procession, stopping traffic at intersections to let the funeral cars pass. Large funerals with 60 or more cars sometimes have three officers.

"If police don't provide an escort, they're going to spend that same amount of time testifying in court in accident cases," said Robert Milward, president of Milward Funeral Directors.

In 2010, police provided 2,041 free funeral escorts, requiring 8,000 work hours, police Chief Ronnie Bastin told the Urban County Council on Tuesday.

Funeral escorts are one of several community support services that Bastin has targeted to eliminate or greatly reduce as the Division of Police cuts 7.7 percent, or $4.59 million, from its budget in the upcoming fiscal year.

Also slated for elimination is Safety City, which teaches Fayette County second-graders about pedestrian and traffic safety; DARE, the drug and alcohol education program; and GREAT, a program to help youngsters deal with bullying and gang activity.

Reductions also are planned in five other community policing programs, including reducing the number of police on horseback from eight to four; reducing from eight to four the officers assigned to specific high-crime neighborhoods in the Community Law Enforcement Action and Response program; and doing only limited policing of the Legacy Trail.

Bastin said the 20 officers taken from community support programs would be returned to patrol duties.

"Our patrol units are short on people already," said Clay Mason, the city's public safety commissioner. "Of our 535 police officers, we are going to use them to respond to calls and investigate crime. Those will be our top priorities."

Police departments across the country are struggling with similar issues, Mason said.

"Chicago is looking at putting 500 community support officers back on the street," he said.

Police understand the importance of funeral processions, he said, "but in times like this when the government has to cut its budget, we think citizens would understand this belt-tightening measure."

Mason said the city would work with funeral homes to come up with creative solutions for escorting funerals. Using off-duty or retired police officers and private security firms has been discussed in the past.

Jessica Coth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, said her organization sees police escorts being eliminated in towns large and small because of budget cuts.

"It's something police departments feel they can reasonably cut without causing harm to public safety," she said.

For the past three years, police in Louisville charged funeral homes $225 for a funeral escort service. It was a cost Pearson-Ratterman Brothers Funeral Home passed on to the families, said Brett Donner, funeral director.

Last month, Louisville police stopped funeral escorts altogether. "Now the Jefferson County Sheriff is doing it for free," Donner said.

A police escort is "all about safety," Donner said. "We have lots of big highways and freeways here that we take processions on. It's absolutely crucial we have an escort."

Over the years, the Fayette County Sheriff's Department has discussed escorting funerals if the Lexington police stop, said spokeswoman Jennifer Miller.

"If their budget is cut, that is something we would discuss in the future," Miller said. "At this time it's not appropriate for us to make this commitment until the Lexington Division of Police knows what their budget looks like."

Funeral escorts have been on the financial chopping block at least twice in recent years. In 2000, former council member Dick DeCamp began a study of whether the city should reconsider its policy of police-escorted funerals.

In 2003, Maj. Kevin Sutton of traffic control sent a memo to Lexington funeral homes to advise them that "in the near future, the Division of Police will no longer be able to provide funeral escorts due to low staffing of officers."

Facing public protest, city officials decided to maintain the service.

Funeral homes are again trying to rally supporters.

"It is difficult to even get out of the funeral home parking lot unless somebody is there to stop the traffic," Milward said.

O.L. Hughes Mortuary on East Third Street asks all motorists in its processions to drive with their headlights on. Office manager Marion Rogers gives each driver a bright orange "Funeral" sign to put on the dashboard. Still, it's not uncommon to have an unrelated motorist break into the procession, he said.

"Some people don't know it's a funeral. For others, it doesn't matter if it's a funeral or not," he said. "If they're in a hurry, they jump into the procession and pull off when they get to where they want to go."

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251

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