Rainelle residents voice concerns over ongoing issues with crime; Mayor declares ‘town emergency’

RAINELLE, WV (WOAY) – The Town of Rainelle has been experiencing an increase in break-ins, squatting and loitering in relation to drug activity.

The residents who say they feel unsafe are also feeling fed up as they say town administration and town council are all pointing fingers at one another rather than coming up with a solution.

This is why the residents held a protest on Monday night outside of a closed council meeting and also why Mayor Jason Smith declared a town emergency on Tuesday to hire more police officers without the council’s support.

Residents say they have seen their community change drastically with an increase of break-ins and squatting in buildings. Some say they don’t feel safe taking their kids to the park or to school, and they definitely do not come outside at night.

The biggest complaint is that there are only two police officers, so they are not getting full, round-the-clock coverage and quick responses and that the officers are not stopping who the people refer to as “backpackers” that walk through town. They have brought this up on several occasions to the town leaders and they feel as though nothing has been done.

“They’re not going to do anything until somebody gets hurt and whether that be a citizen standing here or one of our druggies that’s running around and then some of us is going to go to jail for doing harm to them,” Jim Walker, one resident, said. “That ain’t right. It’s time we stood up and said enough is enough.”

Another person saying enough is enough is ex-police chief J.P. Stevens. When the new administration came in July of 2019, he was fired immediately.

Stevens says since then, the number of officers have dwindled down to two when the town should has the budget for four and one part-time.  Stevens says the people and business owners are paying for coverage in municipal fees and are not getting it.

The council voted to put a hiring freeze on officers around 7 months ago to prevent Mayor Jason Smith from bringing on more as they say the two they had were not showing results.

“It’s not all the mayor’s fault,” Stevens said. “It’s not all the recorder’s fault. It’s all their faults. They sit in there and point the fingers at each other and argue like little dogs and cats, and they need to get off their duffs to provide protection. It’s their job to provide protection to this town. If somebody gets hurt here and you ain’t go that 24-hour protection here, somebody’s responsible for it which comes back to the Town of Rainelle.”

In Monday’s meeting, one that the public nor the media were not allowed in, council continued to say that would keep the hiring freeze in place until they saw productivity out of the officers they had.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Mayor Smith said the council is not permitted to do this and has declared a town emergency in response and says he will hire officers without them.

“Do we have a drug problem? Yes we do. I’ll be the first to admit it,” he said. “Do we have a homeless problem? Yes we do. I’ll be the first to admit that. But you cannot do the things that the citizens want you to do with an inadequately-staffed department.”

Rainelle Police Chief Dean Fankell echoed the same sentiment: “How in the world do they expect to see more productivity from less than half of the staff that they had when they took office in July of 2019?”

During the meeting on Monday night, residents stayed outside for hours trying to listen to the Facebook Live broadcast of it.

Residents say that while their town leaders decide who is at fault for what, they continue to deal with their businesses, cars and homes being broken into and feel uncomfortable walking down the sidewalk or visiting any of the businesses in town because of the people they do not recognize walking around.

The conversation at one point shifted to the new harm reduction program in Rainelle calling on local peer recovery coach Jefferey Blackburn to stop the program as some residents considered it as enabling the drug problem in town.

Blackburn, who was in attendance, encouraged the residents to take a more compassionate approach when viewing the homeless people in the community as well as those battling substance use disorder. 

“When we all pledged to be Christians, we serve God and all God’s children, right? These people are sick. They’re suffering,” Blackburn said. “We need to do something to help them. Calling them backpack druggies and things like that, that’s not the way we’re going to solve anything.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, some town officials came out to address the crowd, including Town Recorder Bill Bell, who apologized for originally backing the campaign of Mayor Smith in the election.

Bell says Smith has been difficult to work with and has been the roadblock for progress. He said the council has exhausted every option and at this point, the best thing the people can do is vote in the town elections next June. 

“Because I ran a campaign that said if you were going to vote for me to please vote for him, [Mayor Smith] trust me on this, I have failed miserably. I have failed miserably, because instantaneously I didn’t know what I was getting into. Right now, who do you see out here? Do you see our mayor out here?” Bell said.

The crowd chanted, “No!”

Mayor Smith said he did not go out and address the crowd because he said it is sometimes better to stay quiet. 

Residents say they will continue to come to council meetings to have their voices heard and fight for their town.

Stay with WOAY for further updates.

Anna Saunders
Anna Saunders is a weekend reporter for WOAY. With a diploma from Princeton Senior High School and a mother from Fayette County, she is no stranger to the area. She received a degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to return home to start her career as a reporter.