New Cobb police chief faces challenges over staffing, community relations

Cobb County's new police chief, Mike Register, said he's eager to address insufficient staffing and perceptions of racism outlined in a recent study of the department.

Register will begin his first full day on the job Wednesday by meeting with his command staff to discuss the study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and formulate 30, 60 and 90-day plans based on the report’s findings and recommendations.

“I think that the report itself is certainly a vehicle for us to do some self evaluation,” Register told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday. In addition to improving community relations, he said the department must ensure it is able to “confront the evolving sophistication of crime and also domestic terrorism.”

Register, who was an officer with the Cobb County Police Department from 1986 to 2005, returns to lead the department after serving as police chief of Clayton County. He was embraced by most of the board and community advocates seeking reform during his swearing in Tuesday.

Commissioner Bob Ott was the only member of the board to vote against Register’s hiring.

“My vote is not a vote against Mike, it is a vote against the process,” said Ott.

The commissioner said the new county manager, Rob Hosack, was “forced” to make a decision to recommend Register without having the opportunity to interview all finalists. He also claimed some of his fellow commissioners and staff met with Register outside the formal hiring process.

Commissioner Lisa Cupid disagreed. Cupid has been a vocal advocate for reforming the police department after she was followed late at night by an undercover officer two years ago. Cupid, the only black member of the Commission, accused the officer of racial profiling. The officer later resigned following a separate incident with another black driver that led to disciplinary action against him.

“We took this very seriously and weighed every candidate seriously,” Cupid said. “The level of thoughtfulness and experience” displayed by Register “was unmatched.”

Ben Williams, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Cobb County and a police reform activist, said he and other leaders had met with Register and were optimistic that he took their concerns seriously.

“The finalist that will be considered today is the right person for this job at this time,” Williams said. He called the IACP report “not perfect” but added “I think it can provide a foundation for those of us who are interested in working with law enforcement to use as a reference and help to shape the plan going forward.”

Mitchell Weinzetl, senior program manager for the IACP and author of the report, presented his findings to the Board of Commissioners Tuesday. He emphasized that insufficient staffing left officers with less time to engage in community policing or “coproduction”—the term favored by the IACP.

Among other things, the report recommends hiring an additional 70 officers to account for an annual attrition rate of 60. It also urges the county to collect more data on the race of individuals officers come into contact with and the outcome of those encounters, and extols the virtues of civilian advisory or oversight bodies.

In response to a reporter’s question, Weinzetl said despite the department’s limited race data, he was confident in his conclusion that it was not plagued by systemic racial bias. He said it was important, however, to address the perception of racism and the lack of trust from some in communities of color toward the department.

“All I can tell you is that we didn’t find evidence of racism in the condoned, allowed behavior either in the formal or the informal culture within the police department,” he said. “In the end, it’s not really about what we found or didn’t find, it’s what people are concerned about.”