Troubled cops land jobs in Georgia schools

Police officers with troubled backgrounds are twice as likely to work in Georgia schools than in local police agencies, an AJC investigation found. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM



Police officers with troubled backgrounds are twice as likely to work in Georgia schools than in local police agencies, an AJC investigation found. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A high school cop lost his job in DeKalb County schools after witnesses said he punched a fellow school employee in the face during an arrest.

A state trooper was forced out of the Georgia State Patrol in 2010 for tasing a handcuffed 51-year old woman in the neck and lying about the incident.

A college officer resigned from the Augusta University Police Department following his 2008 arrest for pulling his spouse out of a vehicle, dragging her, choking her, and ripping the phone cord out of the wall when she attempted to dial 911.

These officers all went back to work  — in public schools across the state.

The second chances they received were far from flukes. Statewide, school system police departments employ officers who have been terminated or resigned under the cloud of an investigation at twice the rate of local police departments, according to an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Actions News.

Roughly 12 percent of the 656 officers working in the state's 31 school police departments have been forced out of a previous job, versus about 6 percent of the officers who work in local police agencies, according to data obtained from the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST), the state agency charged with certifying police.

The officers were terminated or investigated for a wide range of reasons, including chronically poor performance, lying to superiors, sexual misconduct and inappropriate use of force, according to POST documents.

Disparity in the disciplinary history of officers at school departments in metro Atlanta varies widely across the region and comes as school police agencies are expanding across the state.

Clayton County schools police department has one of the highest rates of officers with troubled pasts. Roughly 20 percent of its officers have previously been forced out of a police job — among the highest rates in the state for school police agencies with 20 officers or more officers. Clayton Superintendent Luvenia Jackson expressed surprise when the AJC/Channel 2 revealed the findings.

“We have to do a better job of screening our officers,” she said. “If there are circumstances that we need to investigate further then we need to do a better job at doing that.”

She has directed Clayton Schools Police Chief Thomas Y. Trawick, Jr. to review the backgrounds of officers on the force.

Clayton County School superintendent Luvenia Jackson wants a review of the records of officers on the county school police force. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

At Atlanta Public Schools, where officials launched a new police force last year, roughly 14.1 percent of the sworn personnel in the 71 officer department have been fired or forced to resign from a previous position, according to POST records from March of this year.

“For the most part our officers have been very productive,” said new chief Ron Applin. “While they may have made mistakes in the past, they’ve fared very well with us.”

In DeKalb, the percentage is 12.2; Fulton 6 and in Cobb it’s 3.1.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett schools, the largest school force in the state, has no officers who have been fired by another Georgia law enforcement agency in their careers, according to POST records.

The department pays well for police work and requires officers to have at least five years experience and at least a two-year college degree before they are considered. The agency performs thorough background checks and disqualifies applicants who have been fired or have prior disciplinary issues with POST.

“We just don’t want to take the chance of putting an officer in an environment like a school where there are going to be all kinds of problems if you put a bad officer in there,” said Gwinnett Schools police chief Wayne Rikard.

Chief Wayne Rikard speaks in his office at Gwinnett County Public Schools Police Office in Suwanee on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. School police departments are spreading across Georgia’s education system, but an AJC investigation has found a significant number of officers patrolling campuses have a checkered past. Gwinnett stands out for its stellar record. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Officer gets second chance in Clayton

Sylvester Robinson had nearly 30 years of law enforcement experience when he joined Clayton schools in February 2015. But records show he also brought with him a history of complaints regarding his use of force.

As a young officer with the Atlanta Police Department, Robinson faced six complaints in a three-year stretch of using unnecessary force, with one of the incidents resulting in a one-day suspension, according to records.

During his time at DeKalb Schools, Robinson was investigated three times for using force. One incident — for which he was cleared of wrongdoing — resulted in a $3,500 settlement with a student’s mother. Another, on Nov. 20, 2014, resulted in his dismissal for what the department called “unprofessional and egregious” conduct.

In that case, witnesses told investigators, Robinson and a campus security supervisor — a man in his fifties who attended high school with Robinson decades before — got into a dispute over the presence of a former student on the Clarkston High School campus who Robinson wanted removed, according to the case summary.

The argument became heated. At some point, the stakes were raised from a dispute between co-workers to a law enforcement issue, with Robinson threatening to arrest the supervisor if he swore at him again. When the school employee refused to comply or submit to arrest, Robinson forced him to the ground, pepper sprayed him in the face and placed him in handcuffs.

Robinson — who declined to comment for this story — later told investigators that the employee made an aggressive gesture at him, and that he didn’t know how the campus supervisor ended up with a cut above his eye, suggesting maybe his handcuffs had inadvertently caused it. But according to a teacher and an assistant principal at the scene, Robinson punched the employee in the face as he took him to the ground.

A month later, Robinson was terminated by DeKalb. A little over a month after that, he got a second chance in Clayton County Schools.

Clayton County schools police chief Thomas Y. Trawick, Jr., presides over a department with one of the highest rates of troubled police officers in the state. CURTIS COMPTON/CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

A rush to create a department

With a core mission centered on educating 54,000 students, Clayton school officials hadn’t planned to start their own police force. The job of meeting safety and law enforcement demands across the state’s fifth largest school system was suddenly thrust upon them in early 2013.

The county sheriff’s department had been assigned to protect the county’s more than 60 schools. But in January of that year, newly-elected Sheriff Victor Hill abruptly informed Superintendent Jackson that he would pull his deputies at the end of the school year.

In response, the school board adopted an emergency resolution in March 2013 to start its own department and two months later voted to hire Clarence Cox to be the school system's first police chief. The veteran lawman was tasked with creating a new department and staffing it before students returned from summer break that August. He hired roughly two dozen police officers in a matter of weeks.

“We hired the best available people we could hire when we set the department up,” said Cox who took issue with the idea that the department he created was filled by officers with troubled histories. He said some may have had issues but there were no officers “that I wasn’t proud to be their boss.”

Cox was fired in February 2016, just days after he announced his candidacy for Clayton sheriff. Cox, who is suing the county, said in his lawsuit he was let go despite “superior” job evaluations.

Chief Trawick, the current chief, joined the department about a year ago and acknowledged that some past hires might have been mistakes. But he said pre-employment screening and training have changed under his watch.

“Most of our candidates we are looking at … don’t have those histories in their files,” he said.

Police officers working in Georgia schools are about twice as likely to have been fired or resigned in lieu of termination from previous Georgia law enforcement jobs than officers working in local departments, an AJC investigation found.

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‘I needed another job’

Officer Teresa McLaurin had been fired from Fulton County Public Schools police department just five months before Clayton hired her to be a school resource officer in August 2013.

A Fulton County investigation concluded in March 2013 that the veteran officer had used excessive force when she pepper sprayed an unruly 13-year old girl in handcuffs, according to a memo from Fulton’s schools police chief.

Less than a year after joining Clayton County’s new police force, she ran afoul again. In the span of a month, she pepper sprayed two students, records show, and got in an altercation with a handcuffed 14-year-old boy that left his face bleeding when, according to her, he fell from a chair.

McLaurin said she recovered marijuana from the boy’s pocket during the incident, and said that uses of force were not uncommon in Fulton or Clayton schools. She expressed exasperation with poor leadership in Clayton County and a school environment that frowns on police officers doing what they are trained to do.

“It is a different environment, but a crime is a crime,” she said.

The incidents, along with a dispute over military leave, preceded McLaurin getting fired from Clayton in June 2014 — the second time in a year she’d run into trouble after using force against students.

McLaurin vigorously disputes the actions taken against her and said she was treated unfairly, noting that POST didn’t take any additional action against her certification for the incidents.

While she recalls feeling good about the work when she could help troubled kids, she says the demands of the job seemed more babysitter than cop. She says that the training police officers receive — which includes the use of pepper spray and other force to control suspects — doesn’t fit neatly into a school environment. She took the job in Clayton because she was out of work.

“I was terminated,” she said. “I needed another job.”

The first wave of officers hired in August 2013, including McLaurin, say there was such a rush to create a new agency that short cuts were taken. Some officers were sent into schools without a policy manual. They were offered almost no special training to deal with students and were thrust into the schools with only a couple days of orientation, several officers said.

“We were told that was why they hired veteran officers,” said Officer Micah Brown. “You’ll know what to do. We were put into the schools and have at it.”

Brown suffered a serious knee injury in December 2014 while chasing a student and was fired in May 2015 after he was unable to return to work because of his injury. He sued the school system last year, claiming he was retaliated against by a supervisor. He said his police career is over because of his injury. The school system responded this month in court papers saying it did nothing wrong.

“I loved my job,” he said. “I loved working with the kids. As far as the department, I think it was mismanaged, poorly run and poorly set up.”

Jennifer Presley, school resource officer (SRO), conducts a routine check at Twin Rivers Middle School in Buford on Wednesday, May 10, 2017. School police departments are spreading across Georgia’s education system, but an AJC investigation has found a significant number of officers patrolling campuses have a checkered past. Gwinnett stands out for its stellar record. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Group urges clean records for new officers

School resource officers are some of the most recognizable police officers in a community, according to Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a non-profit professional organization that focuses on training and school safety.

His group trains about 2,500 school resource officers (SRO) per year, but receives few requests to train officers in Georgia.

He said the role of a school resource officer is a unique one for police, requiring the right kind of person. His group recommends that officers have clean disciplinary histories and show a track record of good judgment for jobs in schools.

He said school resource officers should work to bridge the gap between young people and law enforcement. That requires understanding young people and the difference between discipline problems and criminal activity.

“We’re putting them in a situation where there’s a lot of trust involved,” he said. “Just like with any educators in schools, we’ve got to be able to trust them with students all day long.”

He recalled the national furor that erupted in October 2015 when a school resource officer in South Carolina flipped a girl from her desk who was caught texting in class. The incident was caught on video and led to the officer getting fired as well as a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.

“When a person makes a mistake in this job it’s much more evident,” he said. “It’s much more obvious. It stands out much more.”

A system of second chances

An officer must have POST certification to be employed in Georgia.Absent a voluntary policy not to hire cops with blemished records, such as the one in Gwinnett County, there is only one way to ensure that troubled officers don’t get hired: they lose their certification.

POST will revoke the certification of officers for egregious conduct, such as lying, sexual misconduct and criminal activity. POST can also sanction officers, but they can still retain certification for employment. That allows some officers to bounce from department to department.

State police certification officials at POST placed the Augusta University officer who was investigated for assaulting his wife on two years probation after he was forced out of his department in May 2008. In 2015, he went to work for Richmond County schools as an officer and left in February.

In Dougherty County, where the school system has struggled with low morale and leadership problems on its police force, Officer Warren Favors' misconduct stood out.

Favors had resigned in lieu of termination from the Albany Police Department in May 2003 for dishonesty, which he disputed. Still, POST issued a two-year probation on his police certification.

Dougherty County School System Police hired him in January 2006. Eight years later, in March 2014, Favors tackled a 15-year-old student from behind and punched him several times after the student called him "play-play cop" and threatened him in the hallway.

“I’m tired of you threatening me [expletive],” Favors told the student, according to case summary records. “You gonna get enough of being disrespectful.”

The school system fired him just days after the incident, which left the student with two bone fractures. POST revoked his police certification so he can’t work as an officer in Georgia.

Dougherty Assistant Superintendent Jack Willis, who oversees the police department, said school officials don’t condone Favors’ actions. Still, he said past problems with another agency or POST shouldn’t automatically disqualify an officer.

The agency currently has four officers who were forced out of a previous job and two others who’ve had past investigations with POST.

“People make mistakes and there should be an opportunity to clean up your act and get a second chance,” he said. “Our position is the same as with our teachers. We support you if you’re right. We will not support you if you’re wrong.”

Marlon Groover said he’s thankful for a second chance. After the former state trooper was forced out of his job and received 12 months probation from POST for lying while under investigation for tasing a woman in 2010, he landed a job in the Glynn County school system in coastal Georgia in August 2012.

This month, the Exchange Club of Brunswick honored him as police officer of the year for the school system.

“In this position here I’m more of a mentor to students,” he said. “I have a great relationship with my students.”

New law creates training program

In May, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law new training requirements for officers who work in schools.

The primary author of the Senate bill, Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said the proposal will create a certification and training program requirement for officers before they can work in schools. He said he believes it's among the first certification programs of its kind in any of the states.

“Essentially I found out we were not training our SROs,” he said. “I feel the skills of an SRO that you have to deal with in a school system is very different than when you are out on the beat fighting crime in a community.”

The new requirements will involve a special certification from POST for SROs. POST director Ken Vance told the AJC the additional certification requirement could weed out some officers with prior misconduct in their records.

“We will vet these people before we grant them the specialized certification,” Vance said.

Jones said the lack of training led to too many arrests and criminalizing students in matters that should be handled administratively. He said worries about school safety around the country led to an aggressive police style on campuses.

He expressed concern that so many school police officers with troubled pasts are working in schools.

“It’s alarming to me,” said Jones. “I would hope they would want the very best officers with no disciplinary issues at all.”

How we got the story

This story is based on the AJC/Channel 2 analysis of police officer employment, training and disciplinary data provided by the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council, or P.O.S.T., in March of 2017.

That data showed that departments serving Georgia schools employed significantly more officers with past terminations and other disciplinary proceedings — such as an investigation of the officer by P.O.S.T. — than in local police departments.

Surprised by the finding, reporters examined the data more closely for factors that might explain it. They found that while school police department officers were, on average, about seven years older, much more likely to be black, slightly more educated, and of a lower rank than local police officers, these factors could not account for the discrepancy between their previous disciplinary history compared to officers at local police departments. For example, when reporters grouped officers together by age, in nearly every age group, they found a higher percentage of officers working in schools had been terminated in the past than at local departments.

The AJC and Channel 2 also requested disciplinary files from POST on each of the officers employed in schools that POST investigated to learn why they were disciplined. While they found many that had committed offenses that might not alarm parents, they found a surprising number who had committed acts of violence on and off the job, who had lied to their superiors, and who faced allegations of sexual misconduct, many of which might trouble the parents and children they serve.