Senate panel passes bill that could dissolve county police departments

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A proposed law that lays the groundwork to dissolve county police departments cleared a Georgia Senate panel.

A proposed law that lays the groundwork to dissolve county police departments cleared a Georgia Senate panel Thursday despite passionate opposition from coastal elected officials.

If approved, the measure could impact law enforcement in several metro Atlanta counties.

Under Senate Bill 317, state lawmakers could ask local voters whether they want to get rid of county police departments and let county sheriff's offices handle law enforcement. The bill passed the Senate Government Oversight Committee by a 5-4 vote.

State Sen. William Ligon, a Brunswick Republican, said he proposed the legislation in response to a Glynn County grand jury's suggestion that county commissioners ask voters whether the Police Department there should be dissolved. District Attorney Jackie Johnson requested the grand jury investigate the department.

The county Board of Commissioners opposed dissolving the Police Department.

“I spoke with law enforcement officials and lawyers and felt there was a good-faith reason to go forward,” Ligon said. “When you have one body saying one thing and one body saying the other, who do you go to? I just think you should put it to the people.”

Clint Mueller, a lobbyist with the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said he was concerned about state lawmakers subverting the ability of local officials to govern.

“Our No. 1 issue is the precedent it sets,” Mueller said. “This has never been done in the state of Georgia where the local delegation, through a local path, has the ability to go around the board of commissioners to put something on a local referendum.”

There are seven state-certified county police departments in Georgia — and many of those are in metro Atlanta, including Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. In counties where there are two agencies, the county police handle the enforcement of state and local laws while the sheriff's office manages the jail.

Sheriffs also are elected, while county, or municipal, police chiefs are appointed by local government officials.

Mike Browning, the chairman of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners, asked lawmakers to defeat the measure.

“This has been a slap in the face to us to find out we had to come up to Atlanta to … save our Police Department,” he said. “What they’ve done is tear our community up.”

Browning said he believes the legislation is politically motivated.

He cited the downfall of former Glynn County Police Lt. Robert C. Sasser, who in 2010 avoided punishment after spraying bullets across a windshield and killing Caroline Small, who was unarmed. Sasser in 2018 then killed his estranged wife, her boyfriend and himself.

The series of events left authorities in Glynn County exposed to charges that one of their own was given special treatment.

"This thing has been brewing for some time," Browning said. "If (Johnson) had put this man in jail the first time, this county wouldn't be going through this. But we are."