Melodie Mort was 17 years old when she started her job at Lawton Police Department.
“This is all I’ve ever known,” said Mort, today’s records section supervisor, but a high school student in 1985 when she walked through the doors of a building that was all things to city law enforcement, housing police and their staff, emergency dispatchers, municipal court and the city jail.
Today, she and others have begun vacating the building that has been home to Lawton Police Department for 60 years, as they move into the new Lawton Public Safety Center. The deadline to complete the move is Friday, when a public open house is scheduled. Lawton Municipal Court already is working there, while the firefighters of Central Fire Station and Lawton police are slated to complete their move by mid-week.
Not everyone associated with the police department will be in the new public safety facility by Friday. City Manager Michael Cleghorn has said it will be June before the municipal jail will move out of the top floor of Lawton Police Department. But, that still leaves plenty of equipment, records, evidence and personnel associated with LPD.
Lawton Police Chief James Smith said the most difficult aspect is that the move must be accomplished without disrupting service to the public.
“Our department works for the community 24 hours a day,” he said, adding the challenge is ensuring officers still are patrolling the community and detectives still are investigating crime even as they relocate their work lives. “The challenge is physically moving and preparing a new facility.”
Some limitations had to be enacted to complete the transfer: the records division was shut down, which means no filing paperwork. But, Smith said that closure is set for only two or three days, explaining the department has limited options for shutting down any of its operational components.
“We’re working hard,” he said, of efforts to disrupt departmental work as little as possible.
There are issues associated with some aspects of the police department: most notably, restrictions on whose hands may transfer police records and property.
“Both are very sensitive,” Smith said, explaining the department must preserve the chain of evidence, crucial for the personal information that records contain and for information/property that may end up in court as evidence.
In court proceedings, Lawton Police Department must be able to prove chain of custody, meaning there are detailed accounts about where the property has been and who has touched it.
“We can show an unbroken chain of custody,” Smith said, of actions to hire an experienced private firm with bonded employees to ensure the integrity of property and records.
Both are going to a better home. The evidence locker is much larger than the storage available in the basement of the 60-year-old Lawton Police Department. And, records will be stored in expandable files, movable files that provide twice as much space as they appear at first glance, Smith said.
While efforts already are well underway to move the police component of LPD, moving the jail to its new 100-pod facility on the south end of the public safety complex won’t happen this week.
“Our (new) jail isn’t 100 percent,” Smith said, noting issues such as passing state-mandated inspections and preparing personnel for what will be an entirely new atmosphere. “Our staff will go over there and get training, become fully aware of how to operate.”
That isn’t as easy as it sounds. City administrators have said the existing municipal jail has “grandfather” protection against some operating procedures and requirements, meaning that because the facility existed before requirements were enacted, Lawton doesn’t have to follow them. That won’t be true at the new jail, which is larger, has more staff to meet inmate/guard ratio requirements, and more guidelines.
There is a payoff. The new jail is separated from the municipal court area by only a covered drive area, which has doors that can be rolled down and locked when prisoners are being delivered. It’s a return to the past, when police and court were in the same building — but there is a lot more space, Mort said.
Smith said his goal is to be moved in by Wednesday, but he noted with a smile he must be there by Friday, the day city administrators designated for a grand opening that will give the public a look at the new facility.
“We’ll be able to shut the doors here,” Smith said, of a station that has served the community since it was built as part of downtown Lawton’s urban renewal efforts in the 1960s, but will be torn down after it is emptied.
Smith said personnel have mixed feelings about the move.
There’s the excitement of a new building without the infrastructure and structural problems they now face daily. There will be more space. And, technology will be greatly enhanced. Computers weren’t in common use when the department opened in 1964, Smith said, explaining the extensive upgrades that had to be made to the building to accommodate the digital era.
That doesn’t mean everyone is leaving with smiles on their faces.
“A lot of my older officers know this building is old, but they’ve been here their entire careers,” Smith said. “Several have been here 20 years and they hate to leave. This is home.”