WKYC.com | Cleveland, OH | Ashtabula County: Judge tells residents to "Arm themselves" Jeff Maynor Updated: 4/9/2010 5:36:18 PM Posted: 4/8/2010 6:24:43 PM JEFFERSON -- In the ongoing financial crisis in Ashtabula County, the Sheriff's Department has been cut from 112 to 49 deputies. With deputies assigned to transport prisoners, serve warrants and other duties, only one patrol car is assigned to patrol the entire county of 720 square miles. "I did the best with what they (the county commissioners) gave me. If it wasn't enough, don't blame me, don't blame this department," said Sheriff Billy Johnson. Johnson said he is suing the commissioners to get a determination of whether he should use his limited budget to carry out obligations defined by law or put more patrol cars on the streets. "I just can't do it anymore," he said. "I have to have the court explain to the commissioners and to me what my statutory duties are." The Ashtabula County Jail has confined as many as 140 prisoners. It now houses only 30 because of reductions in the staff of corrections officers. All told, 700 accused criminals are on a waiting list to serve time in the jail. Are there dangerous people free among the 700 who cannot be locked up? "There probably are," Sheriff Johnson said, "but I'm telling you, any known violent criminal, we're housing them. We've got murderers in there." Ashtabula County is the largest county in Ohio by land area. Ashtabula County Common Pleas Judge Alfred Mackey was asked what residents should do to protect themselves and their families with the severe cutback in law enforcement. "Arm themselves," the judge said. "Be very careful, be vigilant, get in touch with your neighbors, because we're going to have to look after each other." Ashtabula County gun dealers and firearms instructors tell WKYC their business has really picked up since the Sheriff's Department cutbacks began some months ago. "That's exactly why they are coming, so that they can protect themselves," says Tracy Williams, a certified firearms instructor in Jefferson. "They don't feel that they are protected. They want to be able to protect themselves." Williams says interest in his classes has doubled recently, and many of those coming are people who he would not normally expect to have interest in obtaining a concealed carry permit. "And as far as him (Judge Mackey) telling you to arm yourselves and protect yourselves, you don't have any other option," Williams told WKYC. "We don't have the law enforcement out here to handle it right now." Ashtabula County, where unemployment is higher than the state average, is asking voters to approve a one half per cent sales tax increase in May. The tax hike would raise the tax in the county to seven percent.