GREENFIELD — When Sheriff Mike Shepherd thinks about the lack of security for the pioneer cemeteries that dot the county, he can’t help but cringe.
The county’s 92 historic cemeteries, most located in rural areas or on private property difficult to patrol, are prone to trespassing and vandalism, officials said. In 2007, pranksters tipped more than 63 headstones in one historic cemetery, causing $85,000 worth of damage.
Now, leaders of the Hancock County Cemetery Commission are pushing for stricter ordinances to prohibit mischief-makers from entering the cemeteries, some of which date back to the 1800s, after dark in hopes of deterring some of the mischief that occurs there. Meanwhile, township and county officials remain divided about whose responsibility it is to put such rules in place.
Policing pioneer cemeteries has always been a bit of a thorn in the side of local law enforcement, officials said. Police recognize the importance of protecting historic burial grounds but say the location of many of the cemeteries prohibits them from providing adequate patrols.
Story continues below gallery
More than half of the pioneer cemeteries in the county are located on private property, meaning they are protected by state trespassing laws, Shepherd said. No one – not even law enforcement officers or county officials – can go into a privately owned cemetery without permission from its owners, he said.
Neighbors who spot suspicious behavior can call 911 to report what they’ve seen; but when officers arrive, they have no power to shoo people away from the site if it’s on public property, Shepherd said. And currently, there are no county-wide rules governing the times in which visitors are allowed into the cemeteries, he said.
“I wish there was more we could do, but it’s hard,” Shepherd said.
But about 40 of the pioneer cemeteries in the county are public property and are overseen directly by the trustees of the township in which they sit, said Marciann McClarnon-Miller, the commission’s president.
Aside from catching vandals in the act, township leaders are at a loss for how to keep the cemeteries secure, especially overnight when the majority of the damage occurs, she said.
So McClarnon has started lobbying the township trustees and the Hancock County Commissioners to put signs in cemeteries across the county that would tell visitors the property is closed from dusk to dawn.
A countywide ordinance prohibiting people from coming into the cemeteries overnight would allow law enforcement to impose fines on rule-breakers — a more effective measure than a township resolution, said James Nolte, the Vernon Township trustee.
Township trustees don’t have the power to put in place an ordinance that would prohibit people from coming onto the property after dark, Nolte said; leaders at the township level can pass resolutions, but the document doesn’t carry the same weight as a county ordinance.
If an ordinance were put in place, officers would have the power to ticket people for trespassing or even hold them accountable for any damage spotted at the cemetery, Shepherd said.
But the county commissioners’ hands are tied, commissioner Tom Stevens said. Because the township trustees have direct supervision over the cemeteries, any regulations have to come from the township level, he said.
The commissioners have been advised by their attorney not to act on the issue, referring McClarnon-Miller to the townships’ leaders, Stevens said.
The county did take action earlier this summer to make it easier for residents to report crimes at pioneer cemeteries, officials said.
Each public cemetery was assigned a street address, which many were sites were lacking, McClarnon-Miller said. Now, 911 dispatchers, who have a list of those addresses, can give officers a definitive location to investigate suspicious late-night cemetery visitors, rather than rely on vague directions from callers, she said.
For now, cemetery commission leaders and township trustees are urging people to call 911 if they notice suspicious activity is cemeteries. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to appeal for stricter regulations.
“We want to protect these resting places of our ancestors,” McClarnon-Miller said.