Stockbridge officials have decided to take the law back into their own hands.
The Henry County city plans to revive its police force next year, ending 35 years of county police protection.
The last time Stockbridge had its own police department, it was a tiny slip of a town with about 3,000 people. But the city dissolved its police department in June 1978, hoping to end its embarrassing reputation at the time as a speed trap. The Sheriff’s Office took over, eventually handing over the duties to the county police in 1991.
Now Stockbridge is Henry County’s most populous city with more than 26,000 residents. It is projected to be twice its size by 2040. City officials want more control over who patrols its 13.4 square miles. It is the only one of Henry’s four incorporated cities without its own police force.
After talks with about a dozen law enforcement agencies in Georgia, Stockbridge officials estimate it will cost about $3.6 million to create the police force by this time next year. It will need about $2.8 million to $3.2 million a year to run what would eventually be a 50-member department, City Manager David Milliron said. He estimates it will take three years to recoup the startup costs. The city voted last week, during its review of county-provided services, to create its own police force. Details still have to be worked out with the county.
While there were no homicides or rapes and fewer burglaries and thefts in Stockbridge last year, the city saw an increase in robberies, drug use and drunken driving. Service calls from Stockbridge residents also were up, as were arrests and accidents, according to crime data released by the Henry County Police last month.
City officials envision a more community-oriented police force with neighborhood watch and police academy programs, something they feel the county is unable to do.
“The message isn’t that Henry has done a poor job. They’ve done a good job,” Stockbridge Mayor Mark Alarcon said. “They’re understaffed and that does not allow them to implement the type of things and techniques (we want).”
Henry Police Chief Keith Nichols said he had “mixed emotions” about Stockbridge no longer needing the county’s police protection.
“On one hand I am saddened by this decision but comprehend why they decided to pursue this path,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Richard Steinberg said it’s tough for the county to cover all of Stockbridge as well as the three other incorporated cities and the rest of the county.
“Our feeling is our citizens would be best served by having higher visibility and more police on the street,” he said. “We’re feeling it’s best for us to do that.”
Stockbridge residents don’t pay city taxes but do pay county taxes for countywide services, including police protection. The city has paid an additional $1.45 million to the county over the past three years for two extra officers per shift to ensure it was getting the protection it needed. It also spent another $155,000 for extra off-duty police service.
But some who live in the area worry that the city is taking on too much. They say the city has been on a spending binge since late last year buying up property and refurbishing downtown, and adding a police force would only eat up more of the city’s budget, currently around $9 million. The city already is home to the county police’s north precinct, giving it added protection.
“I don’t know exactly where all that money’s going to come from over a period of time,” said Mike Moon, who lives just outside the city limits but attends Stockbridge meetings. “Anytime you create something, you’ve got to maintain it. That’s going to be an expensive little thing to do.”
Milliron says the startup money will come from the city’s reserves, which total about $18 million.
Reclaiming services has benefits and drawbacks, said Amy Henderson of the Georgia Municipal Association.
“It’s a means of more local control. It’s similar to the new cities being created in DeKalb and Fulton,” Henderson said. “It’s expensive but the upside is you get greater police protection and residents would probably like that.”
Alarcon said he expects a millage reduction for those services from the county that would help finance Stockbridge’s police department. (The city is also taking back several other services, such as building permits and inspections, and planning and zoning.) Federal and state grants would help offset startup costs, Alarcon said.
With the community-oriented approach, Alarcon wants police officers going door to door in neighborhoods placing door hangers with vital public safety information.
“You’ll never get back to the feel of Mayberry, but you don’t have to abandon the idea,” Alarcon said.