In the wake of recent violence in the country involving police and the policed, Walton County’s “Bridging the Gap” forum on July 21st was seen as a way to keep local lines of communication open. Monroe Councilman Norman Garrett, who was instrumental in setting up the forum, was happy with the tone and tenor of the forum as well as the turnout.
“I think we had a great turnout considering the thunderstorm,” Garrett said, referring to the fact that the county was under a severe thunderstorm warning with a heavy downpour at the start of the meeting. “Not having a head count, I believe there were over a hundred people in attendance. I was pleased with the tone of the meeting, which was meant to be calm, peaceful and professional. The format was questions and answers, not debates. The moderators, Emilio Kelly and Delecia Jackson, were informed to immediately shut down anything that might have become too personal or got out of hand, in a professional manner, reminding the crowd to write down questions that could have been answered by the panel.”
Garrett went on to say that he was able to glean a lot from the forum, particularly with regard to community policing.
“I see a lot of people want to see more community policing in the community. I took a lot away from the meeting that I will be addressing with (Monroe City Administrator) Ron Rabun and council members. I would like to see more policing on foot in the communities. We need more police officers who actually live in our neighborhoods. People who not only care about their jobs, but they are more concerned about the people. I believe this allows law enforcement and the people to develop a mutual relationship of dignity and respect.”
In response to a question on that subject, Monroe Public Safety Director Keith Glass said he believes that is already going on in the community, pointing out Monroe police officer Sgt. Brett Davis who is well known in the community.
“I’ve served the city of Monroe since 93 and that’s how I’ve always policed. I have an officer here, Sgt. Davis, if you’ve ever had contact with him that’s the way he polices – by being a part of that community.” Glass said, going on to say that if anybody is not seeing the police presence in their community that they would like to, they can contact him. He concurred with Loganville Police Chief Mike McHugh and Social Circle Police Chief Tyrone Oliver, however, that recruiting police officers is getting more and more difficult, especially in the current anti-police climate.
In response to a question on how to get more police officers recruited from within the community, McHugh responded with, “The first thing we have to do is we need to quit killing them,” adding that the negativity in the media was not helping either. “Ten years ago when I had an opening at my police department, no kidding I would have anywhere from 150 to 200 applications. Last month when we had an opening, you know how many applications we had – two. And what that tells me is that there is a severe shortage of young people who want to get into this profession. And that’s for a number of reasons; one is pay and one is the negative stuff that’s been in the media about police. They don’t want to associate themselves with that, and who blames them. And the other thing is that over the last two weeks, every police officer feels like they’ve got a target on their back. Why would a young man want to put himself in that position, especially if he has a family, a young family.”
McHugh went on to say that every law enforcement officer has missed birthday and special occasions with their families because of a call to duty, but they did it because they had a calling. However, in the current climate there are fewer people who feel that calling. Oliver said it was important to try and make sure that the racial make up of the police force mirrors the community they serve, especially with regard to the racial component, but it was not so easy to do.
“It all comes back to recruiting, just like the Chief said, with pay and all the things we have to deal with from day to day it’s kind of hard to recruit,” Oliver said. “also I find that it is hard to recruit a lot of minority officers because they are already taken by other agencies and communities. The pool is a lot smaller and so we’ve got to try to encourage minority people to get into the profession so we can have a bigger pool to draw from.”
Glass said that while the Monroe Police Department did have a good racial component, he believed it was important to try and mirror the community as best they could and he would like to see more done.
“The recruitment and retention of quality officers gets tougher and tougher every day, every year. In the recruitment of minority officers, we’re competing with Athens-Clarke County, we’re competing against Gwinnett County, we’re competing against so many. But it is a priority we need.” Glass said, going on say that while the department has done well with minority recruitment, especially with female officers, there is more to do. “There’s always more to do and we need to try to mirror our community as best we can. But with recruitment and retention as it is, it’s challenging – it’s very challenging.”
When a question was posed about why an officer would shoot a man who was already complying, McHugh said he hoped that something like that never happens. He, along with Oliver and Glass, said they hated to see the recent shooting of a man with his hands up, on the ground, who was shot.
“Not only was it heartbreaking for that person who was injured unnecessarily, but it is heartbreaking for that whole department because it brings so much negative scrutiny to the department,” McHugh said. “It’s like every other profession on earth, there are bad police officers just like there’s bad judges, just like there’s bad doctors. Every profession has bad elements. It’s just happens that our profession is more in the limelight.”
McHugh said that while a lot of it is well deserved, he hopes that cases that warrant it are taken before a grand jury and if charges are necessary that those be filed and the officers are held accountable.
“That kind of thing reflects on all of us and hopefully it will be taken care of the right way,” Glass said.
Another issue that was of mutual concern to law enforcement and the community at large was incidents when someone suffering from mental health issues ends up in jail. The question was deferred to Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman who said it was a major concern for him. He at one time people with mental health issues were referred to mental health facilities, but it was then deemed to be inhuman treatment.
“So the state of Georgia shut down all mental health facilities. Do you know where we keep mental health patients now – the county jail,” Chapman said. “We did an assessment – 52 to 58 percent of people in the Walton County Jail today are receiving some type of mental health treatment, whether it be medication or mental health sessions. We can’t even get the mental health facility, that I sit on the board of, across the street from the jail to come over and access these inmates. They say they’re in jail.”
Chapman told of a 78-year-old man who had dementia who sat in jail for almost a year on an aggravated assault charge for attacking his sister, who was his caregiver. Chapman said that he, the prosecution, Alcovy Circuit Superior Court Judge John Ott and the defense attorney got together to see what could be done for the inmate.
“We had the lawyer defending this man, we had the people that were prosecuting this man and the judge and the sheriff sitting in the same room trying to find this man some help,” Chapman said, adding that it is rare for that type of thing to happen. They were eventually able to get the man into a local treatment center, but the state couldn’t help because of the charges against the man.
Ott had opened the judicial part of the forum along with Judge Rodney Harris of the Gwinnett County Recorders Court. Attorneys Ken Dious of Athens, Lori Duff of Loganville and David Dickinson of Monroe closed it out answering questions related to legal issues. Duff and Dickinson are also municipal court judges for some of the Walton County cities.
Garrett said he’d like to see more bridging the gap type forums, possibly with other community leaders such as council members, commissioners and school board members.
“I believe that meetings like this will be very beneficial to the community because it allows interaction with law enforcement and the community. The people had an opportunity to actually have their voices heard other than through their vote,” he said.” These were the heartfelt questions and concerns that I often receive calls about. We need to become more involved in educating the people in the community with who it is they need to address their issues and concerns with.”