It’s 7:30 in the evening on a Wednesday, and Cobb Police Chief Mike Register is about to speak to the We Thrive in Riverside Renters Association.
The organization, formed to get South Cobb renters more involved in community issues, is holding a town hall meeting. Register is there to talk about Precinct 2’s public safety report. But before he does, he decides to also weigh in on the subject of the preceding presentation — evictions and tenant rights.
It’s not technically under his purview, he acknowledges. Still, he wants the dozen or so residents in attendance to know that police can sometimes help with housing matters — whether that’s working with landlords to make units safer, or enforcing code.
And he wants them to remember his face.
“If the landlord is not going to fix the lights, we’ll come out there, you can leverage our resources,” he tells them. “When it becomes a safety issue, I want you to let us get involved.”
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When Register was hired as chief last year, after several high profile incidents thrust Cobb police into the spotlight, he promised to make community relations a top priority. And many say he’s done just that, with better outreach, like his appearance at the town hall meeting, along with improved accountability and more training. But the new tone, emphasizing a police-community partnership and building personal connections, hasn’t been universally embraced. An element within the police department remains deeply resistant toward new measures designed to strengthen public trust in law enforcement, according to comments online.
Register took over a department that was, according to one independent study, plagued by public “perceptions of racism.” Shortly after he started, video emerged of a police lieutenant telling a motorist, apparently sarcastically, that officers “only kill black people.”
After 11 months on the job, Register can brag that complaints against police are down by 25 percent to 30 percent. On top of that, crime is down in every category but theft.
Involving the community
Among Register’s first actions as chief was creating a community affairs unit.
Under the new system, each of Cobb’s five precincts appointed two “quality of life” officers to work directly with businesses and residents on fostering a more positive environment. This could include working with the owner of a local gas station to add lighting and other safety measures, or participating in festivals where the public and police can interact in a relaxed setting. Previously, there were only two quality of life officers for the whole county.
Register also met with local advocates to get feedback, and introduced new or expanded training in de-escalating situations, crisis intervention and implicit bias—unconscious profiling that may lead officers to be more suspicious of minorities than white residents.
“The policing profession is just like any other profession,” Register told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It has to progress and it has to evolve with the environment that we have to operate in.”
Ben Williams, head of the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has been outspoken in his criticism of the department in the past. Williams said that, based on what he’s seen so far, he would give Register an “A” for his outreach.
“He actually had the courage to involve members of the community in the planning and implementation of training for law enforcement,” Williams said. “That’s no small feat.”
The department has also increased its outreach to the Hispanic and immigrant community, creating a Spanish-language Facebook page and appointing a Spanish-speaking officer as community liaison.
Carlos Garcia, the head of the Pro-Immigrant Alliance of Cobb County, said the efforts are paying off. Cobb officers were recently able to arrest members of a gang that were targeting Spanish-speaking students at Pebblebrook High for robberies.
The students were victimized because criminals know some Spanish speakers are too scared to call the police if they or someone in their family is undocumented, Garcia said.
“People are coming forward when they’re the victim of a crime,” Garcia said. “They feel more comfortable reporting crimes.”
Progress hasn’t been without setbacks, though.
Already, there was frustration in the department over inadequate pay, staffing and equipment. Today, the department is 100 officers short of the recommended staffing level as the county faces a $30 million to $55 million budget deficit. Efforts to raise taxes to support the police have failed.
In August, widely publicized bodycam footage showed a Cobb officer shooting at a fleeing unarmed teen eight times. Shortly after, when the lieutenant who made the sarcastic remark about killing black people was effectively forced into retirement, some officers accused Register and county officials of pandering to activists and the press.
The incident exposed a widening rift over the new direction of the department that played out on the blog Ducimus, Latin for “we lead.” Found at cobbofficers.blogspot.com, the website was set up some years ago so officers can anonymously air complaints.
“Now we are shovel fed diversity, deescalation of force and more … pacification training that [puts] officers at risk,” someone wrote anonymously. “After I check the box, I will wipe my [expletive] with the verbiage and B/S documents you provide in this new training.”
Another anonymous post called Register a “pandering, community policing politician,” as opposed to a “cop’s cop.”
One person questioned whether minorities were being promoted to leadership positions in the department in order to fill a quota.
When someone defended Register, calling him a “change agent” who wanted to make the department better, he or she was labeled a “troll” and met with derision.
“So do you chug that Kool-Aid they handed you, or just use a direct IV?” someone responded.
Steve Gaynor, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said he’s familiar with the blog but generally ignores it. He said the anonymous critics are few in number and don’t represent the majority of the rank-and-file, who welcome the new training.
“It’s been received quite well and it’s showed that it’s really effective,” Gaynor said. “I think the community relations aspect of this has been very effective in bridging that gap that did exist.”
Register, too, dismissed the online comments as a few disgruntled individuals exercising their First Amendment right.
“Police officers are going to have their opinions. But, as long as those opinions don’t transfer into issues from a professional standpoint, they’re like any other citizens,” Register said. “My expectations for each man and woman who works here are the same: You be as professional and courteous as you can.”
Level of optimism
Of course, as previous incidents have shown, all it takes is a few seconds of dashboard or bodycam footage to erase any gains.
Commissioner Lisa Cupid — who complained that, late one night, she was followed by an undercover police officer because she isn’t white and he didn’t know she was a commissioner — has been an outspoken advocate of community policing and praised Register for his leadership and transparency.
She took the comments on the blog in stride.
Improving the relationship between the community and police often “requires a certain level of optimism that could be frustrating to both officers and members of the community in light of the realities that they face,” she said. “I understand it. It doesn’t make me feel the best, but I can’t get frustrated or disheartened or discouraged by it. We still have to move forward and make this is the best relationship that we can.”
Back at the renters association meeting, Register and other members of the department work to build that relationship one handshake at a time. South Cobb resident Debbie Wilson says she’s noticed more police patrols in the area. She expresses appreciation when the major who heads the local precinct personally introduces himself and says later that it will make her more comfortable with calling police.
“Had I not attended the meeting, I would not have known who the major was, who the chief is,” says Wilson. “I feel that, maybe if I reached out to them, I could get a response.”