Georgia legislators proposing new laws that would allow the state to call a public vote on abolishing county police forces cite recent scandals at the Glynn County Police Department as evidence the measure is needed, but former Glynn officials say the county police department is in better shape than it has been in a long time.
“(Current Glynn County Police Chief) John Powell inherited a bad situation,” said Richard Strickland, a retired police officer, former county commissioner and current member of the county’s Mainland Planning Commission. “Some of it started with (former police) Chief (Matthew) Doering when he was chief, and a lot of it just manifested itself. Over time, it got out of hand (due to a) lack of supervision.”
To bolster their case for the proposed legislation — Senate Bill 371 in the state Senate and House Bill 866 in the Georgia House of Representatives — Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, and Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, refer to a 2019 Glynn County grand jury report.
The report details an investigation into allegations of impropriety between county police officers and informants that led Powell to dissolve the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team.
The report included a number of recommended actions, including allowing the public to vote on whether to abolish the police department. The responsibility for law enforcement would return to the sheriff’s office.
The proposed legislation would allow counties and the state legislature to call a public vote on the same issue and includes a 2021 sunset clause, which means the bill would lose its effect a year after passing.
Opponents say the bill is an overreach by state authorities and that it violates the home rule statute of the Georgia Constitution because it circumvents local government.
Strickland is one such opponent. He has a long history with the police department, starting as a patrol officer and working his way up to director of the county’s emergency management agency over nearly 30 years.
He retired from the role in 2008, running for the commission’s District 3 seat two years later. He served two terms on the county commission, from 2010 to 2018.
Aside from the home rule aspect, which Strickland said he feels very strongly about, he also opposes any effort to abolish the police department entirely due to improvements made over the last few years.
Before a 2015 county leadership reorganization — which established the police chief as an employee under the county manager rather than a contractor on equal footing — the police department had very little supervision, Strickland said.
Rather than answering to the county manager, as all other department heads do, the police chief answered directly to the commission.
According to Strickland, this meant two things: That the job of police chief was political and that the department had very little oversight.
“No commissioner ever went out there and dealt with issues in the police department or anything else,” Strickland said.
During that time, the police department was “a political football.” Rather than keeping one boss happy, a chief had to contend with seven.
There are seven members of the county comission.
“The whole chief’s job was political,” Strickland said. “The chief had to have a delicate balancing act just to make sure he kept his job because he was under contract.”
After Doering retired, Powell was appointed chief to “clean up the mess,” said former county commissioner Mark Stambaugh, who served on the commission from 2014 to 2018.
“(It’s) 2016, I’m on the commission and I know we have issues with the police department under Matt Doering,” Stambaugh said.
The county contacted the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, and asked it to perform a study of the police department and offer recommendations on how to improve it
“Is the police department...perfect? No,” Stambaugh said. “To make it out like the county isn’t addressing the problems or the police department isn’t addressing the problems is wrong. That’s why we had them do the report.”
The county commission has gone through significant effort to improve the department and make it into a high-quality police force and throwing that away would be a mistake, he said.
“The things in that report are essential, but equally important is good strong leadership of that department, and I think we’ve got it,” Stambaugh said.
Dale Provenzano, another former county commissioner, feels as Stambaugh and Strickland do. and feels “very” strongly about the home rule argument.
“All of these (state legislators) relied on the commission to take care of local government and we relied on them to take care of state government,” said Provenzano, who sat in the District 2 seat on the county commission from 2012 to 2016. “As a matter of fact, they had a standing rule that local government would be handled by the county and city commission, and they would not step in on local government issues unless the county or the city commission asked them to step in. They reminded me of that on numerous occasions.”
Like other county officials and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, he feels the bill Ligon and Hogan are pushing violates the home rule principle and is essentially a change to the state constitution.
“I think that Sen. Ligon and Rep. Hogan maybe should have waited until all the facts come out before trying to change the constitution of the state of Georgia,” Provenzano said. “I understand we all get impassioned about wanting to get things fixed, but these are not quick fixes.”
Local officials aren’t alone in their defense. State Rep. Jeff Jones also opposes the bill on the same grounds.
The three former commissioners also made similar claims to those made by the county commission. During a hearing on the bill in the Senate Governmental Oversight Committee, Glynn County Commission Chair Mike Browning claimed Brunswick Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson had used her authority to sway the grand jury against the Glynn County Police Department.
Both Stambaugh and Strickland suggested the reason was to draw attention away from her handling of the 2010 shooting of Caroline Small by county police and a later incident involving former GCDP Officer Cory Sasser, who was accused of misconduct in the shooting death of Small and who in 2018 killed his wife, her friend and himself following dangerous and erratic behavior.
A U.S. District judge in 2014 ruled the shooting of Small by Sasser and another county police officer was constitutional, prohibiting a lawsuit in federal court against police to proceed.
In a written response to claims she used her authority to sway the grand jury, Johnson called it “implausible and offensive” to suggest the jurors could be manipulated by one person to achieve a desired result.
She also noted that the jury’s findings were in line with then-recent rulings by two Glynn County Superior Court judges and that a previous grand jury presentment also called for a public vote on the police department’s continued existence.
Currently, the House bill is awaiting a hearing in the Governmental Affairs Committee, while the Senate bill was passed out of the Governmental Oversight Committee and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.