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New technology proves handy

A newly-acquired piece of surveillance technology recently helped the Lebanon Police Department make a sizable arrest that took dangerous drugs and other paraphernalia off the street.

Last Wednesday, Lebanon’s Kentez Burford, 22, was charged with possession with intent for resale, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a counterfeit controlled substance.

Burford’s vehicle was flagged by the city’s latest surveillance equipment, a license-plate-recognition (LPR) software that identifies stolen vehicles and suspects as they enter a city’s limits. The suspect in this case, had their vehicle flagged near South Hartmann Drive.

According to the department’s public information officer, Lt. P.J. Hardy, “Upon executing a traffic stop, (Burford) was arrested for additional narcotics and possession charges, including possession of fentanyl, cocaine and two different types of prescription drugs.”

The report also stated that Burford was in possession of 30 blank COVID vaccination cards, 10 blank positive test-result forms and 10 negative test-result forms.

The software was a hotly-contested issue by residents and city officials before it was implemented. Mt. Juliet has had one in place since April of 2020 and routinely reports apprehensions that stem from initial identifications by the LPR technology.

While a whole host of privacy issues have been raised, Lebanon Police Department’s position is that the cameras are not used for traffic enforcement, citations or tracking individuals’ movements.

Hardy said that the expectation for the new system is to be “able to identify criminal elements within (the) city and to address those situations before they have the opportunity to victimize citizens.”

The LPR reader in Lebanon is called SafeNet. Hardy said that his department plans to post activities from time to time in which SafeNet assisted in making captures.

However, its cost-to-benefit ratio has been scrutinized as its annual cost exceeds $40,000. Mt. Juliet’s system actually costs twice as much, but it provides more extensive surveillance.

At the time that the city considered approval, Lebanon Police Chief Mike Justice said, “I feel like it’s another tool we can utilize to keep our community safer. We see a lot of vehicles being stolen out of Nashville. When they enter our city, they try to hit apartment complexes.”

Justice pointed out back then that this technology is not new to Lebanon. The same monitoring devices are installed on some of the department’s cruisers and serve the same function as a stationary device would at the entrance to the city. He said that they also use similar technology at the Wilson County Fair to monitor attendees.

Weekend fire destroys MJ home

A Mt. Juliet’s residence was destroyed during a weekend blaze that consumed the structure quickly and left little to be salvaged.

Steve and Kelly Jo Dixon were home on Saturday night when a fire broke out in their house at 355 Crosswinds Drive in Mt. Juliet.

The Wilson County Emergency Management Agency’s fire chief and deputy director, Jeremy Hobbes, confirmed that the call came in at 11:38 p.m.

Hobbes said that three fire engines and a tanker truck were on scene to aid the firefighters’ containment of the inferno. A crew from Rehab 23 was also on site.

According to Hobbes, the home was nearly 80% involved by the time that crews were able to arrive. While the cause of the fire remains unknown at this time, Hobbes said that the initial caller who reported the fire told dispatch that the fire started downstairs.

It took several hours, but the fire crews were able to eventually extinguish the flames, but not before everything material in the home was lost.

Hobbes said that the occupants were home at the time and that thankfully they were able to evacuate the premises without any serious injuries. A friend of the family, Brooke Stafford, said that the only injuries were some minor scratches on Steve Dixon’s face.

The Dixons own Tidy Dog Pet Supply and Salon in Donelson. Their passion for canines has led them to adopt several rescues. In total, they have six dogs. While each dog made it out of the home, as of Monday, one German Shepherd named Athena, had not yet been recovered, although she had been seen around the neighborhood.

A GoFundMe page set up on behalf of the couple has a goal of raising $10,000. As of the Democrat deadline on Monday, its total had reached $5,500.

Stafford helped get the GoFundMe page set up. She is a long-time family friend of the Dixons.

Stafford’s parents, Trey and Gena Sturges, are actually responsible for introducing the Dixons. They’ve remained close ever since, and after the Dixons’ home was destroyed, the Sturges family took them in.

The online donation page has a list of the items needed by the family during this time.

It said, “They are in need of immediate funds to serve the purpose of: temporary housing, deposit for long-term housing, housewares and furnishings, animal food and supplies, basic daily essentials (hygienic, toiletries, etc.), clothing, jackets, shoes (all were lost in fire) and food and water.”

Donations can be made at The name of the drive is “Fire Takes Families Home, Please Help,” and was created by Stafford and Steven Dixon.

Omicron explosion spurs nationwide breakdown of services

Ambulances in Kansas speed toward hospitals then suddenly change direction, because hospitals are full.

Employee shortages in New York City cause delays in trash and subway services and diminish the ranks of firefighters and emergency workers. Airport officials shut down security checkpoints at the biggest terminal in Phoenix, and schools across the nation struggle to find teachers for their classrooms.

The current explosion of omicron-fueled coronavirus infections in the U.S. is causing a breakdown in basic functions and services — the latest illustration of how COVID-19 keeps upending life more than two years into the pandemic.

“This really does, I think, remind everyone of when COVID-19 first appeared and there were such major disruptions across every part of our normal life,” said Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at the global health non-profit Project HOPE. “And the unfortunate reality is, there’s no way of predicting what will happen next until we get our vaccination numbers — globally — up.”

First responders, hospitals, schools and government agencies have employed an all-hands-on-deck approach to keep the public safe, but they are worried how much longer they can keep it up.

In Kansas’ Johnson County, paramedics are working 80 hours a week. Ambulances have frequently been forced to alter their course when the hospitals they’re heading to tell them they’re too overwhelmed to help, confusing the patients’ already anxious family members driving behind them. When the ambulances arrive at hospitals, some of their emergency patients end up in waiting rooms because there are no beds.

Dr. Steve Stites, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Hospital, said that when the leader of a rural hospital had no place to send its dialysis patients this week, the hospital’s staff consulted a textbook and “tried to put in some catheters and figure out how to do it.”

Medical facilities have been hit by a “double whammy,” he said. The number of COVID-19 patients at the University of Kansas Hospital rose from 40 on Dec. 1 to 139 on Friday. At the same time, more than 900 employees have been sickened with COVID-19 or are awaiting test results — 7% of the hospital’s 13,500-person workforce.

“What my hope is and what we’re going to cross our fingers around is that as it peaks ... maybe it’ll have the same rapid fall we saw in South Africa,” Stites said, referring to the swiftness with which the number of cases fell in that country. “We don’t know that. That’s just hope.”

The omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more readily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus. However, early studies show omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

Still, its easy transmissibility has led to skyrocketing cases in the U.S., which is affecting businesses, government offices and public services alike.

In downtown Boise, Idaho, customers were queued up outside a pharmacy before it opened Friday morning and before long, the line wound throughout the large drugstore. Pharmacies have been slammed by staffing shortages, either because employees are out sick or have left altogether.

Pharmacy technician Anecia Mascorro said that prior to the pandemic, the Sav-On Pharmacy where she works always had prescriptions ready for the next day. Now, it’s taking a lot longer to fill the hundreds of orders that are pouring in.

“The demand is crazy — everybody’s not getting their scripts fast enough so they keep transferring to us,” Mascorro said.

In Los Angeles, more than 800 police and fire personnel were sidelined because of the virus as of Thursday, causing slightly longer ambulance and fire response times.

In New York City, officials have had to delay or scale back trash and subway services because of a virus-fueled staffing hemorrhage. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority said about one-fifth of subway operators and conductors — 1,300 people — have been absent in recent days. Almost one-fourth of the city sanitation department’s workers were out sick Thursday, sanitation commissioner Edward Grayson said.

“Everybody’s working ‘round the clock, 12-hour shifts,” Grayson said.

The city’s fire department also has adjusted for higher absences. Officials said on Thursday that 28% of EMS workers were out sick, compared with about 8% to 10% on a normal day. Twice as many firefighters as usual were also absent.

In contrast, the police department saw its sick rate fall over the past week, officials said.

At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, two checkpoints at the airport’s busiest terminal were shut down because not enough Transportation Security Administration agents showed up for work, according to statements from airport and TSA officials.

Meanwhile, schools from coast to coast tried to maintain in-person instruction despite massive teacher absences. In Chicago, a tense standoff between the school district and teachers union over remote learning and COVID-19 safety protocols led to classes being canceled over the past three days. In San Francisco, nearly 900 educators and aides called in sick Thursday.

In Hawaii, where public schools are under one statewide district, 1,600 teachers and staff were absent last Wednesday because of illness or pre-arranged vacation or leave. The state’s teachers union criticized education officials for not better preparing for the ensuing void. Osa Tui Jr., head of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said that counselors and security guards were being pulled to go “babysit a classroom.”

“That is very inappropriate,” Tui said at a news conference. “To have this model where there are so many teachers out and for the department to say, ‘Send your kid’ to a classroom that doesn’t have a teacher, what’s the point of that?”

In New Haven, Connecticut, where hundreds of teachers were out each day last week, administrators have helped to cover classrooms. Some teachers say they appreciate that, but that it can be confusing for students, adding to the physical and mental stress they’re already feeling because of the pandemic.

“We’ve already been tested so much ... how much can the rubber band stretch here,” asked Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

Kelleher reported from Honolulu. Tang reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Rebecca Boone in Boise, Idaho; Paul Davenport in Phoenix; Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; Michelle L. Price, David Porter and Michael R. Sisak in New York; and Michael Melia in Hartford, Connecticut, contributed to this report.

Child forensic interviewer marks milestone

The forensic interviewer at the 15th Judicial District Child Advocacy Center (CAC) recently conducted her 1,500th case interviews after five years in her role ... and despite that elevated number, she said that the work is just getting started.

Cece Ralston interviews children, boys and girls ages 3- 17, in situations where allegations of abuse have been made. She explained that instances of abuse could be “sexual, severe physical abuse, or other kinds of things we talk with kids about, like neglect.”

“My purpose is to gather information from that child about something that has happened, whether it happened to them, a sibling or another child that they know,” Ralston said.

Ralston has a psychology degree from Rhodes College in Memphis. She was also trained in the art of interviewing children at the National Child Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

She’s learned the best steps to take while interviewing children.

“I ask them to tell me about themselves and to tell me about a recent event that was a happy or positive event,” said Ralston. “We call that narrative practice. Because what I want them to start doing is telling me about an event with sequence and detail.

“By having the child tell the story, they get into that pattern of how you tell someone about something that has happened.”

The interview format is a central element to the CAC core concepts.

“The idea of the CAC was started in the 70s,” said Ralston. “Prior to having CACs, children were interviewed wherever, could be at a police station, or a DCS office, or at the home where the abuse happened.”

According to Ralston, the CAC allows the transmission or retelling of events by the children who experience them, in a “safe, neutral and comfortable environment.”

Ralson said that allegations typically come through the department of children services (DCS( hotline or through local law enforcement. One of these two entities contacts the CAC to set up an interview.

Much like physical evidence, the content of the interview can be used in court. Ralston estimated that few cases, less than 10%, actually get that far. She called this a disappointing statistic, given the widespread prevalence of abuse she has encountered over the years.

“There are situations where we believe that the child is telling us the truth, but physical evidence is lacking,” Ralston said. “Without physical evidence, it’s very hard to convince juries that an allegation is true.

“It’s frustrating because there is a lot of abuse occurring that (goes unresolved.)”

Ralston said that in 2021, the CAC had approximately 600 referrals. Of those, she said that approximately 75% received interviews. If only 10% make it to court, that is still 45 cases, so the CAC can bear fruit, even if those original numbers or reported abuse seem bleak.

Sometimes, Ralston is called in to testify during a trial. In those cases, Ralston is asked about the content of the interview.

She said that the video recording of the interview is also permissible in cases where a child witness is less than 13 years old. After that age, children generally have to testify.

The sensitive nature of the dialogue has lent itself to a common misconception about the retelling of abuse from a child victim. Ralston said that everyone thinks the children would be crying, but it’s the indifference with which some of them recount their experience that the interviewer finds most shocking.

“I’ve had children tell me about years of abuse, as casually as telling me what they had for lunch that day,” Ralston explained. “It’s because that’s become the norm for them.”

Breaking the cycle of abuse is what drives Ralston each day as she refuses to let tragedy become routine. She knows she’s part of a much larger process that involves every step to function as intended, but she is happy all the same for the chance to advance the mission.

The hotline to call and report child abuse or neglect in Tennessee is 1-877-237-0004.

Nearly two months after the season tipped off, Asia Barr and Lebanon will finally play its first game in the new District 9-4A when they travel down Interstate 840 to Wilson Central at 6 p.m. today. The other 9-4A game has Green Hill going to Cookeville while Mt. Juliet is off.