A state representative is urging Gov. Brian Kemp to remove Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson from office, and a state senator says he now believes the fate of the Glynn County Police Department should rest with voters.
Rep. Jeff Jones, R-St. Simons Island, wants the governor to replace Johnson with Keith Higgins, an independent candidate who is working to challenge her reelection in November. Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, is eager to return to the original version of a bill that would allow voters to dissolve the county police department.
Jones is confident Johnson will be removed.
“I had been silent prior to the election, but because of everything I’m hearing there’s a strong likelihood the governor will make the decision to remove the DA soon,” Jones said.
Jones sent the letter to Kemp June 5.
Johnson’s office declined to comment on the letter. Higgins said Wednesday he had not been contacted by anyone about the issue.
Georgia code states the governor may suspend elected officials following a felony indictment by a grand jury only if the action is recommended by a special commission composed of the acting state attorney general and two officials of the same rank as the indicted.
The governor may not completely remove elected officials from office unless they are convicted, state law says.
When a district attorney is removed, the governor appoints a replacement until the judicial district can hold a special election.
Kemp’s office could not be reached for comment.
Cause and effect
Jones said he was prompted to make his request public after the House Judiciary Committee unanimously gave the thumbs-up Tuesday to Senate Bill 317.
The bill will next go to the House Rules Committee before heading to the House floor for a final vote.
If the bill is approved by the House and signed by the governor, the state legislature would be able to call a vote during an election to abolish a county police department.
Ligon and Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island, are pushing companion legislation which would ask the citizens of Glynn County on the November general election ballot whether they want to keep the county police department as-is, institute reforms or merge it with the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.
But as the bill passing the House stands, the public’s decision would be binding if it makes it to the governor’s desk.
Difference of opinion
Jones zeroed in on a claim Ligon made to the House Judiciary Committee that the leadership of the police department has not made substantial changes since a scandal in 2019 that led to the abolition of a joint city-county narcotics squad prompted a subsequent grand jury report on the events.
Jones noted that the department’s entire upper leadership has changed in the two years following the retirement of former police Chief Matt Doering in 2017. Doering was replaced by currently suspended police Chief John Powell.
Powell was suspended in March after a county grand jury indicted him. The DA claims he had a hand in concealing aspects of the narcotics squad scandal.
“Since that grand jury report came out, (the police chief) changed,” said county spokesman Matthew Kent. “All the captains have changed, mostly through attrition. I don’t think anyone was fired. Most retired after (former police Chief Matt) Doering left.”
Rather than allowing problems at the county police department to fester, Jones said Powell immediately set about correcting them. He said Powell followed the grand jury report and a set of recommendations made in an International Association of Chiefs of Police report on the department’s internal affairs and operations.
The root of the problem is district attorney Johnson, Jones said.
“DA (Johnson) has systematically worked against the current GCPD administration, blocking their efforts to clean up the house Chief Powell inherited from an administration she supported,” Jones said.
He claimed Johnson’s office has repeatedly dropped the ball. He pointed to the cases of Guy Heinze Jr., who was convicted on eight counts of murder in 2013, Caroline Small, in which no officers involved in her shooting were convicted, and former police officer Corey Sasser who, after a standoff with county police, would go on to shoot and kill his wife and her male friend before taking his own life.
The problem persists
Ligon and Hogan have been pushing S.B. 317 since 2019, citing the grand jury report as their justification. They backed off making the resolution binding a month later, reducing it to a simple public opinion poll on the general election ballot.
Ligon defended the initial bill before the judiciary committee Tuesday, saying the department’s decision not to arrest Gregory McMichael, 64, and his adult son Travis, 34, in the Feb. 28 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery renewed their efforts to allow the citizens of Glynn County to make the final call on the fate of the GCPD.
Both McMichaels were arrested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and charged with felony murder in early May.
County officials have claimed the DA’s office advised police not to arrest the McMichaels immediately after the February shooting. Johnson would later recuse herself due to Gregory McMichael’s past service in the DA’s office.
Ligon felt legislators gave the county a chance to correct problems in the police department when it backed off the original measure in February. After police allowed the McMichaels to remain free, he felt the county had not done enough to earn goodwill.
“That was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ligon told the committee Tuesday. “We came to the realization, Rep. Hogan and I, that (the police department) was not really going to change.”
Ligon said Wednesday the McMichaels would have been arrested in February had the police department been operating properly.
The fact that the arrests were made in May showed Ligon that progress had not been made in reforming the GCPD.
“As I mentioned in the hearings, in the corporate world and the military, when there is an issue in the direction of that entity, significant reforms are made to get that organization on proper ground,” Ligon said. “We have not seen decisive action to get law enforcement back on track.”
Based on feedback from the public, Ligon said he doesn’t think his constituents have much confidence in the current state of the GCPD either.
“At this point right now, my thoughts are we need to turn to those who have the ultimate say-so in this, and that’s the people of Glynn County,” Ligon said.
Having the chief law enforcement officer in the county elected by the people might solve some of the issues plaguing the department, he added.
The case against
The bill got unanimous support from the judiciary committee, though not without some reservations. Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, questioned whether the county had really been given the chanee to turn things around.
“Abolishing it is the code red point, and if that is what you want and that is what your community wants I’ll support that, but I want to know why we haven’t looked at firing everyone and starting over,” Reeves said.
Debra Nesbit with the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia spoke to the committee from a neutral position. She was not there to defend Glynn County but said her association was interested in the constitutional aspect of law enforcement.
“Policing is one of our inherent powers of our constitution, and this would appear to give the legislature the power to go around the county in abolishing a police department,” Nesbit said.
The Georgia Constitution gives counties the right to create police departments rather than relying on the duly elected sheriff for law enforcement.
Creating a police department requires the consent of the voters, Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, countered. It only seems fair, he said, to give voters the option to abolish one as well.
S.B. 317 automatically sunsets in 2022 unless action is taken by the general assembly to extend it.
Ligon said the time period seemed appropriate given his conversations with other sheriffs.
The Glynn County Commission doesn’t plan to take it lying down. In a past interview with The News, commission chairman Mike Browning said the matter will go to court if necessary.