State legislators are considering local legislation to let Glynn County voters choose whether or not to leave the Golden Isles’ law enforcement in the hands of the Glynn County Police Department or to fold it into the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re still talking about it,” said state Rep. Don Hogan, R-St. Simons Island. “I think the voters ought to have a right to vote on almost anything.”
Currently, the GCPD handles law enforcement in the county while the sheriff's office is in charge of the Glynn County Detention Center, Glynn County Courthouse security and enforcing arrest warrants, among other things.
According to Hogan, the action was spurred by a recent scandal involving the Glynn Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team, a joint narcotics unit composed of both Glynn County and Brunswick police department officers.
In a presentment issued in September by an outgoing Glynn County grand jury detailed the results of an investigation into allegations of impropriety between county officers and informants.
The grand jury made several recommendations, most of them suggesting changes within the county police department's procedures. It also recommended giving voters the chance to decide whether or not to dissolve the police department.
“The grand jury came up with a recommendation to let the public abolish the police department because of some activity they had been involved in,” Hogan said. “It’s something we’re looking at, and trying to feel it out and seeing what’s going on with it.”
State Sen. William Ligon, R-White Oak, was also on board with at least considering letting voters decide which agency enforces the law in Glynn County.
“I think we’re certainly looking at that. We’re looking at the grand jury report, we’re looking at the county’s response to the grand jury report. The concern is that the county’s response provided by Glynn County in respect to the grand jury is inadequate,” Ligon said.
In particular, Ligon said he was concerned with the fact that some county officers refused to cooperate with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation during the course of its investigation into allegations against GBNET.
County Manager Alan Ours said in the county’s official response that the police department could not force its officers to cooperate with any investigation without potentially violating the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re working on it, and we’re taking it very seriously,” Ligon said.
Both Hogan and Ligon said they’re in the early, formative stages of the whole process. Hogan explained that holding the vote and taking action on it would require the state legislature to pass a general bill, which is not a short process.
State Rep. Jeff Jones, R- St. Simons Island, strongly opposed the measures proposed by Ligon and Hogan in a written statement to The News on Monday.
He based his opposition on his belief that a police chief can be more readily held to account that an elected sheriff and that keeping the sheriff’s office and police department separate seems to be working well for Glynn County.
“If our law enforcement arrangement works for Glynn County, then so be it. I do not necessarily base my decision making on what others are doing. I certainly learn and observe what others are doing, whatever the issue, and then act accordingly,” Jones wrote. “The important thing regarding Glynn County law enforcement is doing what is right and best for Glynn County, not only for today but in the future, not bowing to the political wills and forces currently at odds in Glynn County.”
Glynn County Commissioners felt blindsided by the news, however.
“I was just about beside myself when I heard that,” said county commission Chairman Mike Browning. “Apparently they had no intention of telling us what they were up to.”
Local officials didn’t hear about any such plans until last month, Browning said. In his view, the effort constitutes a violation of the Constitution of the State of Georgia.
Among the other powers the state constitution provides to counties is the authority to provide law enforcement through a police department instead of relying on a sheriff.
If the state legislature goes through with it, Browning said it would also be a violation of the home rule statute.
Home rule, as laid out in the state constitution, allows counties and cities to pass any “clearly reasonable” local ordinances as long as they don’t conflict with state law or the state constitution.
Hogan didn’t outright deny that what he and Ligon were considering would violate the home rule principle.
“That’s a question I’d have to ask myself,” Hogan said. “Being a good Irishman, I’m in favor of home rule. I was a county commissioner, so I have respect for home rule. But just knowing what I know about some stuff that’s going on, I think we’re going to have to take a look at what we’re doing.”
Browning also noted that no one from the county was called in to testify or given a chance to defend the department during the grand jury’s investigation.
“The grand jury heard exactly what (Glynn County District Attorney) Jackie Johnson wanted them to hear. You can print that. They heard what she wanted them to hear,” Browning said. “The state delegation was brought in. No one from the county commission was brought in. No one. We were completely blindsided.”
Much of the information the grand jury had been given was either out of date or incorrect, Browning said. Many of the changes recommended by the jury were already done or in progress when the presentment came out, he said, largely due to a report on GCPD operations released by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The IACP report included many of the same recommendations that the presentment made.
“I haven’t heard about the sheriff’s office doing an audit to make sure they’re operating efficiently and have the proper training and all,” Browning said. “I mean, this thing covered everything, even the use of canines. This covered everything. I don’t think they knew anything about it.”
If the citizens wanted changes at the local level, he said, they would make it known at the ballot box.
“There’s a system to keep those officials in check. You vote them out if you don’t like what they’re doing,” Browning said. “You don’t go to the state delegation and undo the constitution because you don’t like what’s going on.”
Rather than being a simple pursuit of the greater good, Browning said local politics were driving the effort to dissolve the GCPD.
“I want the citizens of this community to know, from where I”m sitting, I see things and I know things and this is about good-old-boy politics,” Browning said. “I had hoped we were past this. I had hoped we were past unelected people playing behind the scenes to concentrate power in their buddies’ hands. The good old boys are always trying to undercut the commission and the will of the people.”
When asked, he would not name anyone involved in the alleged campaign against the police department.
“I’m not going to mention any names, but if folks would look at all the elected folks and Glynn County, look at who contributes to those who have been elected. Look at those who might manage their campaigns,” Browning said.
To support the claim, he pointed to the March 2016 anonymous leaking of a 911 call made by then-Brunswick circuit Superior Court judge candidate Richard Taylor’s wife, alleging Taylor had assaulted her.
Ultimately, both Taylor and his wife claimed the call was a misunderstanding, but Taylor lost the election to sitting Superior Court Judge Bert Guy.
“That was someone trying to smear an individual running for elected office. And I think it worked,” Browning said.
He declined to say more on the record.
Whatever comes out of the state legislature, Browning said the commission will push back against it.
“We’re going to fight to keep the politics from changing something that has worked well for Glynn County for 100 years,” Browning said. “We’re going to fight to keep this community from regressing.”