A top Georgia public safety officer is stepping down

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

One of Georgia’s top public safety officers is stepping down after roughly three years on the job.

Col. Chris Wright said Thursday that he is retiring as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety. His last day at the agency is Oct. 1, and he’ll be succeeded by Lt. Col. William Hitchens, who is now one of Wright’s senior deputies.

Gov. Brian Kemp tapped Wright in September 2020 to lead the agency, which oversees the Georgia State Patrol, the Capitol Police Division and the security details that protect the governor and other political leaders.

Wright led the state patrol during a tumultuous time, including waves of protests against racial injustice that rocked Atlanta in 2020 and more recent, and still ongoing, demonstrations against the city’s proposed public safety training center.

The protests against the complex escalated after the fatal shooting in January of a 26-year-old protester by state troopers. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said the troopers fired in self-defense after the demonstrator, Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, fired at them, but activists have questioned that narrative.

Facing mounting challenges to attract new recruits and retain veterans, Wright pressed lawmakers to bolster pay and benefits for state troopers. He warned that state patrol pay lags behind many other states even after recent salary hikes, and he pressed for a new pension system that could receive a vote next year.

Kemp praised Wright’s record in a statement that also nodded to the challenges he faced.

“During times of civil unrest and the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, Colonel Wright demonstrated resilience, foresight and strength that has led to reductions in crime and safer communities all across Georgia,” Kemp said.

At the agency’s board meeting on Thursday, Wright called it a “bittersweet day” after 33 years with the department. He mentioned the protests and the aftermath of cheating accusations in early 2020 involving the state patrol’s 106th trooper class.

The sole trooper who was found to have actually cheated submitted his resignation; the other 32 who were fired were cleared in 2021 by a lengthy investigation by the state Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

“It was a very tough three years. As most of you know, we’ve worked through a lot of issues,” said Wright, who said he sought to make the agency a better place for troopers. “And I hope that in some small sense, they have felt that.”

Wright added, “Sometimes loving something means making the decision to let it go.”

Hitchens joined the state patrol as a cadet in 1995, and he won a service award a year later for his response to the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park during the Olympic Games in Atlanta. He has held a string of leadership roles at the agency over the past two decades and now serves as its deputy commissioner.

Hitchens’ father, state Rep. Bill Hitchens, is also a former trooper who served as the head of the state’s Public Safety Department during then-Gov. Sonny Perdue’s administration. In emotional remarks, the younger Hitchens lauded Wright and vowed to follow in his footsteps.

“He has shown time and time again his commitment to our employees,” Hitchens said. “And I promise to show you the same commitment he has shown.”

A spokesman for Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns called Hitchens an “experienced, trusted successor.Richard Hyde, a veteran investigator and member of the agency’s board, said Hitchens “has come up through the ranks and has the respect of the men and women of the department.”

Credit: File

Credit: File

Wright’s retirement is among a series of changes to Kemp’s administration in his second term. The governor recently named Christopher Hosey, a veteran Georgia Bureau of Investigation officer, to serve as the law enforcement agency’s new director after his predecessor quit to return to his former job in Cobb County.

Kemp has also named new leaders of other state agencies. Jeff Cown was recently appointed as head of the state’s Environmental Protection Division, while Rick Dunn left that job to lead the state’s Office of Planning and Budget.

Walter Rabon took over as commissioner of the state Department of Natural Resources, where he once served as a deputy. He filled the job once held by Mark Williams, who now heads the Jekyll Island Authority.

And Russel Carlson was appointed to lead the Department of Community Health, where he formerly served as the chief health policy officer. He succeeded Caylee Noggle, who took a job as the chief executive officer at the Georgia Hospital Association.