Cobb commission adds 40 police positions

Cobb County Police officers packed the commission chambers Tuesday night and applauded loudly after several speakers blasted the county’s elected leadership, saying commissioners have failed to take action after being warned of the dire need for more officers, new vehicles and smarter scheduling.

After public hearings and approval of new fees and taxes related to building the Atlanta Braves stadium, commissioners unanimously approved adding 40 positions to the police department. It will take at least one year, and possibly longer, to fill them.

When filled, the new officers will allow the department to go to overlapping, 10-hour shifts at two of the four precincts that currently operate on an eight-hour shift model. The officers also will allow the department to begin adding officers to some of its depleted specialty units.

The commission vote happened just two days after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the county’s top public safety officials have been warning Commission Chairman Tim Lee and County Manager David Hankerson for at least 16 months that the department does not have enough officers to provide backup on dangerous runs or field calls during shift changes.

Police Chief John Houser and former Public Safety Director Jack Forsythe also told Lee and Hankerson in the memos that the department was losing an excessive number of officers every year, and that measures needed to be taken to staunch the exodus. They suggested implementing a take-home car program that would require spending about $3 million a year over five years for 270 cruisers.

Houser told commissioners that adding 40 officers “is a big step.”

“I’m hopeful it will have a positive effect on the retention issues,” Houser said.

Lance LoRusso, general counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police, said the commissioners are responsible for the low morale within the department.

“You have a three-year plan to build a stadium. Where’s your three-year plan for public safety?” LoRusso said. “Where was your plan three years ago? This is not an academic exercise, it is serious. We need resources; we need manpower; and we need them now.”

Billy Mull, president of the Cobb FOP who was a 42-year veteran of the force before retiring, said the department lost 71 officers last year and will probably lose more this year.

“The plan to add 40 officers and a few cars is a good first step, but it took the AJC to get your attention,” Mull said. “The morale of police officers is at a critical stage. They’re leaving in waves. It was created in large part by you people, the commission.

“What will you do when 80 officers leave this year?”

Scotty Davis, the department’s chaplain, said he hears first hand about the lack of manpower, old vehicles that break down frequently and the low pay and benefits.

“I’ve stood with them while they were waiting on vehicles so they could go into service while calls were waiting,” Davis said. “That’s a problem. I believe these matters must be addressed … with clear, swift and decisive action.”

The commission’s vote on new taxes and fees will generate about $8.3 million a year for the county’s $300 million commitment toward building the Braves stadium. The revenue will be generated by:

• A three-percent rental car tax in unincorporated areas of the county.

• A special taxing district that will levy a three-percent property tax on businesses and apartment complexes in the Cumberland area.

• A $3 per night hotel room fee, also in the Cumberland area.

The votes for all three taxes and fees were passed by a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Lisa Cupid voting against the measures, saying she was concerned about how the issues were communicated to the public.

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