Confusion after cops say Fulton County jail declines to book DUI suspects amid COVID

The Fulton County Jail. (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO
The Fulton County Jail. (CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM) AJC FILE PHOTO

Over the past six months, police officers in Roswell haven’t been taking DUI suspects to jail. Instead, the cops helped the drivers home by calling them cabs or, in some cases, giving them a ride in a patrol car.

Officer Sean Thompson, Roswell police spokesman, said officers couldn’t book the drivers because staff at the Fulton County jail had made it known they wouldn’t take people charged with DUI due to COVID-19 concerns. Police in Alpharetta and the city of South Fulton also reported being turned away when they showed up with drunk drivers, according to a Sept. 3 letter sent to the sheriff’s office by Fulton Solicitor General Keith Gammage.

“This immediately sounded an alarm due to the threat that this presents to public safety," Gammage wrote in the letter, which was also sent to all police departments in the county. “I have personally spoken with multiple agencies within the various jurisdictions across our county and they are in accord with me and expressed their concern.”

After the letter, confusion abounded over what types of inmates the jail has been willing to take as officials tried to get on the same page.

In the letter, Gammage said he’d spoken with multiple police departments and heard complaints that the jail wasn’t taking people charged with DUI. Gammage, who noted that he appreciated the intent of keeping the jail population down during the coronavirus pandemic, said the reports he’d heard made him worried about public safety.

Gammage said there were hundreds of cases where such suspects were turned away: 145 from the city of South Fulton, 108 from Roswell and 55 from Alpharetta.

Gammage’s letter also said the jail had turned away people charged with battery in domestic violence cases. But police in Roswell and Alpharetta said they didn’t know of cases where domestic violence suspects were turned away from the jail. DUIs were the main problem, they said. A spokeswoman for Gammage’s office declined to say where they got information that the jail wasn’t taking battery suspects in domestic violence cases.

Tracy Flanagan, the sheriff’s office spokeswoman, said the jail’s policy has not been to turn away suspects charged with DUI or domestic violence. But she didn’t dispute that jail staff had declined to book DUI suspects.

Flanagan sent The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a list of all people booked in the jail since March, and it showed that many people facing charges of DUI and battery in domestic violence cases. She also sent a copy of a memo the sheriff’s office sent to police in March about which types of arrestees the jail wouldn’t take because of the pandemic. The list didn’t say the jail wouldn’t take DUI suspects and it explicitly said the jail would take battery suspects if the case was domestic violence.

In an interview, Gammage said that since sending the letter to the sheriff’s office, he has received a response that calmed his concerns. He said he believed his office, the sheriff’s office and the police could get on the same page.

“We’re all trying to do our very best in our various roles during the toughest times in modern history,” he said. “Sometimes...there are challenges. If you find a challenge you try to work it out, and I really believe that’s what we’re all doing.”

Meanwhile, Thompson, the Roswell police spokesman, said Thursday morning that the agency still wasn’t taking DUI suspects to the jail because officers expected that they would be turned away. Hours later, apparently after the AJC told the sheriff’s office about Roswell’s concerns, Thompson said someone from the sheriff’s office had called the police department to say that DUI suspects were welcome at the jail.

South Fulton Police Chief Keith Meadows said Friday that the issues his agency faced with the jail had been resolved.