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When the city of Bella Vista incorporated on Jan. 1, 2007, the first municipal service to transfer to the city was the police department, which happened by city ordinance on June 25, 2007. But getting to that point was somewhat of a challenging road.

After Cooper Communities established Bella Vista Village in 1965, it set up a force of security guards to patrol the village. According to the October 1966 issue of the Village Vista, the force consisted of Security Chief Nofel Curtis Sturgeon (known simply as Sturgeon), who patrolled during the day, and Miles Crevier who was considered the "night watchman" for the village. They also patrolled by air, especially during the hunting season, to catch any hunters in violation of village rules. On weekends, they were relieved by Howard Bennett who was a UA student during the week. They were headquartered on the top floor of the Hill 'n Dale restaurant which stood at the northeast corner of Lake Bella Vista.

Sturgeon left the department in 1968 (he continued to work as a mail courier for interoffice correspondence until his retirement and passed away in 1986 at age 82). In November of 1968, C.F. Bentley became chief. The Aug. 3, 1976, issue of the Weekly Vista stated that the department was now officially called the police department. In that article, Bentley said, "We started functioning as a department in 1969 and early 1970." They moved into the Fire and Police building at Town Center, which was opened on May 19, 1970.

A major hiccup in operations took place in late 1976. It was caused by the fact that the officers were paid by the POA and furnished vehicles by the POA, not the Sheriff's office, even though the officers had been duly sworn and appointed by the sheriff and recorded as deputies in the Benton County courthouse. The Weekly Vista of Nov. 9, 1976, reported that a Bentonville Municipal Court ruling stated that an officer employed by an individual, which was interpreted to include an unincorporated community, cannot have arrest powers, based on an 1894 Arkansas court ruling.

This ruling arose as a result of a case in which a person had been arrested in Bella Vista by a Bella Vista officer for driving while intoxicated. The person's attorney cited the 1894 ruling as a defense. After the Nov. 4, 1976, ruling, the prosecuting attorney told the Sheriff, the Bella Vista officers could have no arrest power or authority to carry a weapon. The department could continue to accept calls but would have to further all information to the Sheriff's office for a deputy to be dispatched.

Follow-up articles in the Weekly Vista continued the story. The Sheriff's bonding company informed him that arrests made by the Bella Vista officers may be contested, and he would be held liable since he bonded the officers. The Sheriff removed deputy commissions from all Bella Vista officers, then hired three of them as deputy sheriffs on the county payroll. They could patrol Bella Vista but could also be assigned anywhere in the county. That meant patrolling the Village would primarily be left to the remaining security force in Bella Vista, who could patrol in unmarked cars and report incidents to the Sheriff's office through their dispatcher.

The POA's attorney, Clayton Little, filed a brief on Dec. 1 which requested the municipal judge to reconsider his decision, but the judge refused, "which in effect abolished the Bella Vista Police Department and relegated it to the position of a private security force," as noted in the Dec. 7, 1976, Weekly Vista. So the prosecuting attorney decided to file an appeal and said it would likely go directly to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

In the meantime, a partial solution was successfully pursued. On Dec. 7, The Bella Vista Security Department received a "security license" from the Arkansas Investigators Licensing Board of the Arkansas State Police. That authorized them to operate with weapons as a "Security Guard Agency." They could also make arrests during the process of a felony, but that is true of anyone making a "citizen's arrest," so the main difference is that they could then carry weapons again.

By late February 1977, the issue appeared to be resolved. The Arkansas State House passed a bill in late January to allow security officers employed by a property owners association of planned community developments to have arrest powers for misdemeanor offenses and exercise all other powers of deputy sheriffs in the course of their employment. The bill stated that security officers must possess the minimum requirements of a deputy sheriff in order to be employed by a POA. Representative Clayton Little of Bentonville had introduced that bill. It was then forwarded to the Arkansas State Senate, which immediately passed it, and the governor signed it into law, as Act 237 of 1977, on Feb. 23. As part of that law, the POA was required to provide liability insurance on each officer for coverage in the event of false arrest.

The next step was for the POA and the Sheriff to meet to make the security department operational with arrest powers the department had lost the previous November. That meeting was held on March 1, 1977.

But in 1981, the issue raised its ugly head again. The Jan. 27, 1981, Weekly Vista reported that on Jan. 21, for the second time in five years, the same municipal judge ruled that Bella Vista security officers did not have normal police powers because they were privately employed, despite their appointments as deputy sheriffs. This ruling again arose from the arrest of a Bella Vista man driving while intoxicated. This defendant's attorney filed a brief in which he wrote that the legislative act which authorized deputy sheriffs to make arrests for misdemeanors while privately employed was "an attempt to confer authority on a deputy sheriff with power to do what the sheriff himself cannot do ... It is clearly in violation of the Constitution of the State of Arkansas and the statutes defining the powers of a sheriff."

The municipal judge, in ruling for the defendant, wrote that the organization of the Bella Vista Security Department was still essentially the same as it was in 1976. He ruled that Act 237 of 1977 had been misconstrued. He wrote, "I believe that this act would give Bella Vista the right to hire valid full-time deputies on a part-time basis, but I don't think it can be construed to allow full-time employees for a private security force to be appointed deputy sheriffs."

He wrote that such appointments are "an attempt to clothe a private security organization with official powers and to create what is, in effect, a private police force."

The Feb. 3, 1981, Weekly Vista reported that the Bella Vista police were continuing to operate but with limited authority. At that time, the Sheriff's office said that if the Bella Vista security force needed a bona fide law officer, such as in the case of accidents or criminal investigations, they could call the Sheriff's office and someone would be sent out. They did not have the authority to arrest for misdemeanors, but if they witnessed a felony being committed, they would have the authority to make a "citizen's arrest."

The Benton County prosecutor appealed the municipal judge's ruling in Circuit Court on Feb. 5, 1981. The Circuit Court Judge said he would rule by May 8. The May 19, 1981, Weekly Vista reported Captain Fellers as saying "We are back in operation." Full authority had been restored to the Bella Vista Security Department with powers to make misdemeanor arrests. The circuit court judge had ruled that his court had no jurisdiction to rule in an appeal by the state from the municipal court and dismissed the appeal.

William Fellers, who had been with the department since 1977, had been named acting chief of the Bella Vista department after former chief, Bentley, was fired in January when the POA board was thinking of contracting law enforcement directly with the Sheriff's office as a way to solve the problem, but that plan was soon discarded.

As a result of the prosecutor's decision, Fellers and the Sheriff met, and reached agreement whereby the Bella Vista officers would be recognized as sheriff's deputies. According to the June 26, 1981, Weekly Vista, Fellers was named "captain of the Bella Vista Sheriff's Office" (a title consistent with the Sheriff's organizational structure), and the newspaper reported that the department "was recently designated an arm of the Benton County Sheriff's Office."

The March 11, 1987, Weekly Vista reported that the Bella Vista department was again under scrutiny, as a result of another attorney questioning its arrest authority. This attorney was defending two men arrested in Bella Vista on misdemeanor charges. The County prosecutor was quoted as saying he believed there was no legal question involved in the arrests that were made because, while the deputies were being paid by the POA, the sheriff gave them the commission of officer, which gave them arrest powers.

While information is not available on the details of the case from that point forward, obviously the Bella Vista department was able to continue in operation. The whole matter became a moot point when the city of Bella Vista was incorporated and the police department became a municipal service in 2007.

Community on 05/20/2020

Print Headline: Early history of the Bella Vista police department

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