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This Virginia island's only cop passed away years ago. They haven't been able to find a replacement.

Posted at 12:09 PM, Sep 12, 2022

TANGIER ISLAND, Va. — Tangier is a tiny town with a big problem.

For starters, it isn’t just a town – it’s a 1.2-square-mile island fighting against time and the Chesapeake Bay.

Tangier has always been a popular tourist attraction, but five years ago a CNN article highlighting their fight for a sea wall to delay submerging into oblivion led to a phone call from then President Donald Trump and suddenly the small island gained support from across the world to help save their shorelines.

Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge will tell you all the attention in 2017 helped get their western sea wall completed. And there's been recent funding allocated that could help with an eastern sea wall.

But what it hasn’t been able to do is help them find an island cop.

In January 2020, their long-time town cop passed away at the age of 62. Sgt. John Charnock served the island's 400-plus citizens for almost a decade, and many remember him as “ a good man” who was “devoted to the community.”

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Sgt. John Charnock

But it’s been nearly three years and the island has not been able to fill the badge he left behind.

“I think one of the drawbacks from somebody who hasn't been a police officer is the training. It's like 16 weeks, and quite extensive,” said Eskridge.

The town covers the cost of the training. But it's faced unique challenges searching for someone who is up for the job.

“I believe a cop that lived away from here could do a better job than somebody living here, because it's always gonna be biased a little bit,” said Tangier native and business owner, Cameron Evans. “And somebody who doesn't really know the population that well would be able to carry out their job a lot smoother, I would think, than somebody who knows every single person.”

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Cameron Evans

Eskridge agrees, knowing firsthand from his brief stint as the island cop many years ago that familiarity with everyone in the small town can make enforcing the law murky.

But perhaps an even harder challenge is finding someone outside of its shores who would be willing to change their lifestyle and move to the island.

Tangier has made modern advances in securing things like internet access, but lacks some basic necessities, like a grocery or convenience store.

“Some people could adjust, but I know some people we've talked to, they’ve said they couldn't,” said Eskridge.

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Tangier Mayor James “Ooker” Eskridge

“It's kind of hard to entice somebody to move away and move here on a salary that isn't, you know, substantial,” said Evans.

The job also doesn’t include benefits, which has been another huge drawback for potential applicants.

Even though Tangier rarely has any crime, the lack of law enforcement has forced others to step up in different times of need. And residents don’t know who to call when they need help.

“We don't have a police officer, so they call the mayor,” said Eskridge. He and the town manager have both been called to help with situations outside of their normal job duties even though neither are certified to enforce the law.

Some of the island’s volunteer firefighters said they have also had to help out with situations that would not normally involve the fire department.

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Tangier Volunteer Fire Department

In most cases when law enforcement is needed, they call the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office since the island falls under its jurisdiction.

“Anytime they call, we respond,” Accomack County Sheriff Todd Wessells said. “As long as there ain’t a hurricane, if it's an emergency, we’re coming.”

But even on a fair weather day, it could take over an hour for a deputy to get into the sheriff’s office’s 25-foot boat and travel to Tangier from the Eastern Shore.

And for emergency calls that require hospitalization, Maryland State Police is called in with their medevac helicopter since the closest hospitals are in Salisbury and Crisfield.

Accomack deputies haven’t had to make that trip for a crime-related call often.

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Wessells said since 2020, they’ve had a report of trespassing at the Tangier History Museum, two overdose deaths, and a case back in June where a well-known Maryland photographer’s boat was vandalized.

Jay Fleming frequently hosts photography workshops on the island. One day he returned to find his boat covered in black paint.

While Fleming said it was unfortunate what happened to his boat, he doesn’t think having a town cop at that time would’ve changed anything.

“I can't let one bad apple spoil the whole island. Even right after it happened. You know, when I first discovered it, I called a couple of people who are like, I would say pillars of the community. And they organized people to bring down cleaning supplies, people to come help,” said Fleming. “I mean, there were like 30 or 40 people who came throughout that morning while we were getting the paint up to help. That to me, that's more an example of like, the real Tangier than what this person, whoever they were, did to my boat.”

The main offense residents are worried about: speeding. It might be surprising considering the islanders use golf carts and bicycles as their main modes of transportation on the narrow roadways.

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“You've always got pedestrians on the street, kids playing on the street,” explained Mayor Eskridge. He added just having a cop on the island would likely make residents think twice.

According to Sheriff Wessells, the island does have a resident Virginia Marine Resources Commission officer who can provide back-up to make an arrest in an emergency situation, if needed.

Wessells also said during the school year, there are two deputies from his office on the island a couple times a week to teach Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) classes to the students. Even that small presence makes a difference, he said.

“Tangier is unique. I would love to be able to keep somebody over there. But unfortunately, I can’t,” said Wessells.“I don’t have the manpower to keep somebody over there all the time.”

For more information about the job, contact the Tangier Town Office at (757) 891-2438.

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