A bill allowing for the dissolution of the Glynn County Police Department passed a state Senate committee Thursday by a 5-4 vote, following remarks from state Sen. William Ligon and 30 minutes of testimony by Glynn County Commissioner Mike Browning, in which Browning made a number of allegations about and laid a lot of responsibility for the scandal on District Attorney Jackie Johnson.
“The origins of this bill arose out of some issues in Glynn County,” said Ligon, R-White Oak. “In September of 2019, a grand jury issued a report, approved by our superior court judges, which basically, it raised some issues and concerns within the department … and wound up with the conclusion that the issue of whether or not to continue that department should be placed before the voters of Glynn County, so that they would have the right to decide whether or not they wanted to continue to have law enforcement in that county administered by a county police department or by a sheriff.”
Ligon noted one of the things that stood out to him was the testimony of former GCPD Lt. David Haney, who not only said he didn’t and wouldn’t cooperate with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the operations of the department, he would advise others not to do so.
“On the stand, the officer said, basically, ‘I refuse to talk to the GBI, I would never talk to them, I would advise other officers not to talk to them as well,’” Ligon said. “Granted, and I understand fully well that there are 5th Amendment rights, and that a person’s employment cannot be conditioned on him cooperating with a criminal investigation, but for someone in a position of authority to say they would encourage other officers not to do that, is disturbing. Because, what if an officer witnesses conduct that is not proper, or perhaps in violation of the law? Is he not to talk about it?”
State Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, said her concerns involved the constitutionality of the proposal, that it seems to try to do indirectly what couldn’t be done directly. Ligon responded he didn’t see a problem as the legislation would result in a referendum — the legislature doesn’t take that action, the voters take action, if they so wish.
Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller joked about the worries already aired by county governments.
“If there’s heartburn over whether it’s the county commission’s idea to get rid of this or the state’s authority, maybe we should talk about getting rid of the county commission,” said Miller, R-Gainesville.
That drew a comment from Senate Government Oversight Committee Chairman Bill Heath, R-Bremen, who said, “I had a conversation with (the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia) yesterday about this bill, and I pointed out one of their children was apparently, at least perceived to be, misbehaving. And if they would tend to their children, we wouldn’t have to deal with it here.”
Browning, following Ligon, reiterated county commissioners weren’t called to speak to the grand jury.
“The presentment states that — and this is important — the presentment by the grand jury states that if the Glynn County commissioners are unable to address the issues set forth in these recommendations, if we’re unable to address the issues, OK?” Browning said. “That’s the first thing they say. If we’re unable to address those issues, the operation of the county police department should be terminated by the county commission and/or state legislature, which is why we are here today.”
He said commissioners have been and are working through goals brought into focus by a International Association of Chiefs of Police report, and they’ve been successful in cleaning up the GCPD before and after the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team scandal. He said the issue boils down to enmity between Johnson and GCPD Chief John Powell, going back to a meeting allegedly regarding statements made about Johnson on Facebook by a police officer’s relative.
Browning also said part of the problem was the lack of action by the District Attorney’s Office to deal with former GCPD Officer Cory Sasser, who was accused of misconduct in the shooting death of Caroline Small in 2010 and who in 2018 killed his wife, her friend and himself following dangerous and erratic behavior.
“If she put that man in jail the first time, this county wouldn’t be going through this, but we are,” Browning said.
Regarding the Facebook comments, Browning said at this meeting were the DA, the chief, County Manager Alan Ours, Commissioner Bill Brunson and the county attorney. Browning said Johnson asked Powell to do something about it, Powell said he wasn’t in a position to do such a thing, and the relationship continued to sour from there.
He also said there was a meeting with the District Attorney’s Office a few months before the grand jury report in which the DA’s chief investigator called the GCPD the most professionally run department he’d ever seen, and in which Johnson was unable to give good reasons why the county needed a new police chief, beyond asking to have investigators who are credible when called to testify in court.
“And now that we’re here, we learned that she’s finally going to go and try to get indictments on our police chief on what I understand are oath of office issues, and that’s fine,” Browning said. “I have no problem with that. But to ask me and my fellow board of commissioners to fire somebody? Because you want them fired? And right now we don’t have anything to fire him on?
“I live in a different world. I would ask y’all to encourage the DA to complete her process take any one of our employees she wants to, indict them, take them to court if she thinks they’ve done wrong.”
The News attempted to contact Johnson late Thursday afternoon for comment, but she was not immediately available.
“Here’s where I think I am,” Heath said after Browning’s testimony. “We’re going to do what the committee wants to do, but I’d hate to drag this out to another meeting when you guys are here. As I said before, this is not the end, this is one step in the process and there really is a lot of opportunity to do something different later.”
State Sen. Randy Robertson, R-Cataula, made the motion to pass the committee substitute, which sets a sunset date for 2022. Miller seconded, and the committee gave its OK by one vote. The bill, S.B. 317, moves on to the Senate Rules Committee.