Cobb’s answer to officer exodus — a hiring binge

Digging Deep. Cobb County's public safety leaders have complained for more than two years to county leaders about the cost to Cobb taxpayers for the loss of hundreds of police officers in recent years to other jurisdictions. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, using the state's Open Records Act, has been able to shed light on the depth of the problem. The AJC will continue following Cobb's solution to police staffing.

Former Cobb County public safety director Jack Forsythe resigned in frustration this year, convinced County Manager David Hankerson and Commission Chairman Tim Lee had no interest in helping the police staunch the exodus of officers leaving the department for better pay and benefits.

“I have come to realize that no matter what information I provide … you will continue to deny or take no action” to hire more officers, buy more vehicles and improve benefits, Forsythe wrote in his Jan. 6 resignation letter.

Seven months later, the county will finally begin addressing those issues when commissioners approve — as early as today — a $340 million general fund budget that increases police department spending by $3 million over the current year.

But fully staffing and equipping the department — which will require hiring and training 232 officers, along with buying 230 patrol cars — won’t be complete until January 2017, or just three months before the new Atlanta Braves stadium opens, according to a department improvement plan obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under Georgia’s Open Records Act.

The police department’s budget, as proposed in the fiscal 2015 budget, is $58 million.

Lance LoRusso, general counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police, said it shouldn’t take 2 1/2 years to fully staff a department that the county’s public safety officials have described as in “crisis.” The department has lost 191 officers since 2011, including 71 last year and another 24 between February and July.

“If you look at the proposal Jack Forsythe made, this is exactly what he told them to do 18 months ago and they just ignored it,” LoRusso said. “Now they’re playing catch up.”

Public Safety Director Sam Heaton, who took over for Forsythe in February, said he thinks the proposed budget will go a long way toward solving the department’s high turnover rate. The department, at 577 officers, is currently is about 100 officers short of full strength.

“Some of the things we’re proposing levels the playing field and will help us retain the officers we have and draw others in,” Heaton said.

The AJC reported in February that Police Chief John Houser first mentioned the need for more officers, new vehicles and smarter scheduling in an October 2012 memo to Hankerson and Lee. After a year of inaction, Forsythe wrote a memo stating that the department did not have enough manpower during shift changes to respond to calls or provide backup on dangerous runs.

“This reduced ability … is a danger to our citizens and our officers,” Forsythe’s October 2013 memo says.

In all, the department’s problems were outlined in dozens of memorandums to Hankerson and Lee, up until Forsythe’s resignation.

The newspaper also reported in February that frustration had boiled over in an officer survey, which featured common complaints about not having enough officers; driving vehicles with more than 150,000 miles; waiting hours for patrol cars because of inefficient shift change operations; and not being issued basic equipment.

And a majority of the officers named Lee, Hankerson and commissioners when asked in the survey what they “dislike or would change” about the county and what are the department’s “top three challenges.”

Lee responded to several questions related to the public safety budget through email. He acknowledged that the plan being implemented by the county echos the needs identified months ago by Forsythe and Houser, but said he is supporting it now because “it provides a clear path and allows for a realistic funding strategy.”

County budgets are the commission chairman’s responsibility, which are typically drawn up in conjunction with the county manager.

The short staffing has forced Police Chief John Houser to fill in beat coverage with officers from the special operations and criminal investigations units. Houser said he hasn’t had a choice.

“The most important thing any police department does is respond to calls,” Houser said. “When someone dials 911, I’ve got to have someone show up at the doorstep.”

Houser and Forsythe started warning county leadership about the department’s needs long before the Braves move to the Cumberland Mall area was announced. Forsythe, who was involved in county planning for the Redskins move from Washington, D.C. to Prince Georges County in Maryland, found out about the Braves move through a newspaper article.

Afterward, Forsythe warned Hankerson and Lee in a memo that the new stadium would likely cost millions of dollars in upgrades to police, fire and emergency dispatch operations — costs that they had never acknowledged. He also said in that memo that the department needed to start hiring officers immediately in order to be ready for the stadium’s opening.

The extra police spending targets a few specific areas:

  • A doubling of training classes, to four per year. Cost: $135,000 annually.
  • Shift differential pay, for officers working later or more dangerous shifts. Cost: $1.3 million.
  • Educational incentive pay. Cost: $1.8 million.

In addition, the county has identified funds for additional patrol cars, a new police headquarters and evidence room in the special purpose sales tax levy that will be in front of voters this fall.

Forsythe said he’s just glad his plan is finally getting traction.

“The time delay is treacherous … but if this is their way of moving forward, I hope it’s implemented,” Forsythe said.

In an Aug. 22 post on Lee’s private website, which serves as a fundraising page, the chairman outlined the plan to improve the police department without mentioning that all of those ideas had sat idle under his leadership for about two years.

“As you can see, this is a major priority for me,” Lee’s post says.

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