Local law enforcement needs the help of the citizens it serves, and the community also needs to be able to trust the officers, authorities said Thursday night.
Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie, Rincon Police Chief Phillip Scholl, Guyton Police Chief Kelphie Lundy and Springfield Police Chief Paul Wynn addressed concerns and answered questions during an NAACP-sponsored town hall. Also on hand were Effingham Chief Magistrate Scott Hinson, Renata Marie Newbill-Jallow of the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit public defender’s office and Sgt 1st Class Chris Nease, commander of Georgia State Patrol post 42 in Rincon.
“Do not be afraid of your local law enforcement,” said Chief Scholl. “We are here to serve you.”
McDuffie said his department does not have a set of written guidelines on community policing, but he encourages his deputies to talk to the community as much as possible. Also, deputies have monthly training on policies and procedures, and they have at least one hour of training each year on the use of deadly force and one hour of firearms training.
“I encourage my guys to get out of those cars and talk to the people in those communities,” he said. “Get to know who’s in your community. We’ve got to get out of these patrol cars and talk to people in the community.”
Wynn said his department also takes the time to talk to residents as much as possible.
“If we cannot get into our community and talk to them, we cannot be as proficient as we can in our job,” he said. “I am a firm believer that if we do not get information. If wasn’t for the citizens, we wouldn’t be able to do the job we do today.”
In light of the deaths of African-American males in police incidents in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, North Charleston, S.C., and most recently in Baltimore, the Effingham chapter of the NAACP called for the forum.
“You have seen all kinds of incidents that sadden your heart,” said Leroy Lloyd. It can happen anywhere. We don’t ever want it to happen in
Effingham County. We always want Effingham to be a wonderful place to live and to work and play. We come to start the relationship-building process.”
Said Newbill-Jallow: “We don’t want it to happen here.”
The various agency chiefs said there is no room in their respective departments for racism or racist behavior.
“Zero tolerance (for racism) in Guyton. Period,” said Lundy.
Said Scholl: “If and when I come across one I find to be racially motivated or racist, he is gone. He is unemployed and he is going to be looking for another job outside of law enforcement.”
McDuffie said he saw many friends, both black and white, among the crowd Thursday. When it comes to racial bias among his department, “we don’t play that game,” he averred. “We don’t have time for that. We have too many things to do to keep our county safe to worry about what color your skin is.”
The sheriff said his department does not have regularly-scheduled diversity training, but he is open to any kind of training.
Wynn said his department has had diversity training and he would happy to send his officers to more diversity training.
“We treat everybody like we would like to be treated,” he said. “I can walk up to anybody in the city of Springfield and speak to them as if they were my brother.”
Following a question about how administrative leave seems like a reward for officers who Scholl said that when an officer is placed on administrative leave following an incident such as an officer-involved shooting, it is not a paid vacation for that officer.
“If we have an in-custody fatality, an officer is put on administrative leave for several reasons. If he is justified in what he has done, you still want to tend to his mental needs,” he said. “I promise you we don’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘I think I’m going to kill somebody today.’ That doesn’t happen. The administrative leave portion, they are not on vacation. They are subject to recall at any time. It also allows the agency to conduct an investigation into that person until the agency is ready to approach that person for clarification.”
In response to a question on the hiring of minority officers, Scholl said his department is reflective of the community and his force is 30 percent minority.
“I want the best person for the job, regardless of race,” he said. “I wish we had more applicants. When we do background checks, I wish they didn’t have that little block. I don’t care. My review panel doesn’t care. I look at their work history. I look at their ability. I can look at their background and tell you if they are a worthy person.”
Scholl said there were 115 deaths of law enforcement officers last year, and approximately 600 fatalities of people in police custody.
“There are millions of interactions between citizens and law enforcement every day,” he said. “With the millions and millions and millions of interactions annually, the death to interaction ratio is less than one-one millionth of a percent.”
Scholl also said a small number of bad officers should not taint the public’s perception of law enforcement.
“One or two people do not define a community. One or two police officers do not define the law enforcement community,” he said. “There are people out there who are going to make bad decisions. They are human beings; they are going to make bad decisions. We, the law enforcement supervisors, hold those responsible.”
Mental health issues
The panelists also dealt with the mental health of their officers and if their officers are trained to deal with people who may have emotional or psychological problems. Nease said the State Patrol has a peer team group that speaks with troopers.
“We’re involved in traumatic incidents all the time, and it weighs on you,” he said. “If you don’t address it, it will affect you.”
As a post commander, he can ask that a counselor call one of his troopers and speak with him following an incident. He had to do that last week following the wreck on I-16 that killed five Georgia Southern University nursing students. The first trooper on the scene was one of his least experienced, having been out on the road less than a year.
“As I talked to him I could tell it was weighing on him,” Nease said. “I made those phone calls and had him meet with people.”
Scholl said another officer, perhaps a partner or fellow shift member, often can spot something amiss with a fellow officer.
“We’re not robots,” he said. “Officers are a tight-knit group. If they see their partner or their shift member start to decline, the desire to help, which I think most police officers have, it’s going to go up the chain of command. They go right back to a fitness for duty evaluation.”
McDuffie noted four deputies have died since he’s been sheriff, “and that weighs on you,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has a chaplain program in place for counseling and there also is help available through the county.
“We encourage the guys to take care of it,” the sheriff said.
Law enforcement officers also were urged to broaden their training in dealing with people who have emotional or psychological issues. Pauline Shaw of the Effingham Navigators said those who have autism can come off as hostile when they are approached by police.
“They are scared,” she said. “They are vulnerable.”
McDuffie recalled an incident several years ago where a young man ran away from home.
“They said he could stop and stare at a leaf for hours,” he said, adding someone with such a disorder can be hard to find once they go missing. “You never know what they’re thinking.”
Eventually, deputies were called to a woman’s house, where the subject was in the pool.
“We were able to get him out of that pool and come talk to us because we told him his mother wanted to see him,” McDuffie said. “That’s an isolated incident. We’re not always that fortunate.”
The sheriff said his deputies have training in those matters, but it probably isn’t enough.
“While Georgia is moving toward criminal justice reforms,” Newbill-Jallow said, “but the mental health issue is something we need to address.”
Another incident was mentioned where a person on vacation was called by someone back in Effingham that they had made all the necessary arrangements and they were going to take their own life. The subject had a loaded gun, but the sheriff was able to defuse the situation.
McDuffie said law enforcement officials continually lobby state lawmakers to bolster the state’s mental health outreach.
“Unfortunately, the jails in our state are our biggest mental health providers,” he said. “We have argued for years to get better mental health providers. We still fall short in a lot of cases. We’re getting there. We’re doing a better job. We still fall short.”
Hinson said he doesn’t automatically grant search warrants. Each warrant can be from 10 to 15 pages long, and the requesting officer has to verbally each item on the warrant before it is signed.
“A search warrant is not just a piece of paper,” he said. “Search warrants are not given out regularly. They are not easy to obtain.”
Hinson said the county’s law enforcement agencies are diligent on the details for warrants, and since he’s been magistrate, he’s only had to sign two no-knock warrants. Those are reserved for occasions when a suspect may be armed and poses a danger to officers.
But there are times when officers will enter a home without a warrant. Wynn said those are almost always calls for medical assistance.
“We will kick your door in if your grandmother calls and says she can’t get out of bed and she needs an ambulance there,” he said.
Newbill-Jallow said that if officers come to a home without a warrant and declare they are going to enter, the residents should make their objections known at that time. But they also should let the officers in.
“If you don’t let them in, you’re not going to win,” she said “If you object make sure you let them know. You need to make clear to them I do not give you consent. You need to make clear ‘I do not consent.’”
Newbill-Jallow said that makes the defense lawyers’ job easier when challenging anything uncovered as a result of that search.
Panelists also said if someone has a problem with an officer, there are steps in place to handle those concerns. While no agency has a citizens’ review panel, each has a process for officer complaints.
“Any time a trooper is involved in a use of force incident, we’re required to fill out a report, no matter how minor the incident is,” Nease said.
Every single use of force is reviewed by a State Patrol officer, and each GSP troop has two lieutenants and a captain.
“And they tell me, we’re going to call balls and we’re going to call strikes,” Nease said.
McDuffie said any complaint is brought to the ECSO’s internal affairs division for investigation. Complaints have three places for people to sign their names, and those who make false claims against deputies could find themselves on the other side of the law.
“I know this is hard to believe, but people don’t always tell us the truth,” he said.
McDuffie also asked that residents who have a problem with a deputy come to him, rather than turn to social media to air their complaints.
“Don’t put it on Facebook. Don’t put it on Instagram,” he said. “We cannot properly help an occasion if it’s on Facebook. If I have a problem officer, I don’t need to be seeing it on Facebook. I need to be dealing with it in my office. If there’s a problem, let us know.”
Also, many officers are equipped with cameras to record each interaction and incident.
“We’ve got all the cameras we want,” Lundy said. “We got them on our car, on our bodies.”
Springfield officers also have in-car and body cameras now, Wynn said. Rincon officers also have in-car cameras and body cameras.
Said Scholl: “Every time an officer goes into a situation, they are recording.”
Scholl also said if citizens want to record their interaction with his officers, they’re welcome to do so.
“If you’re recording us, we’re probably going to smile and wave at the camera,” he said. “The more, the merrier. Your perspective is just as good as ours.”
Lines of communication
McDuffie and Wynn both said they would like to see town hall meetings in smaller settings, so they can delve into answers in a one-on-one basis.
But the chiefs also said they need the people’s help to do their jobs.
“We can’t do this by ourselves,” Scholl said. “Do not hesitate to call.”
The Rincon chief also urged that homes and families be the first line of defense.
“We have juvenile problems we can’t solve,” he said. “That judicial system starts at home. Help us to better serve you. Start in your home, start in your community.”
Newbill-Jallow told those in attendance to speak with law enforcement officers and also suggested more racially diverse law enforcement agencies.
“I encourage you to speak with them,” she said. “We know there is a racial disparity between those who are arrested and who go to jail. We also know the more diversity you have around the table, that helps to alleviate some of the problem.”
Nease also urged those in attendance to set a good example by following traffic laws.
“We have had a significant increase in fatalities,” he said. “Set a good example for our youngsters coming up driving.”
Scholl said having a relationship of trust between law enforcement and the community at-large is “paramount.” The forum also gave him a glimpse of what the community expects from him and his officers.
“I’m hoping the community as a whole has a better understanding of what we do and why we do it,” he said.