Without warning, Georgia city eliminates police department

Without warning, Georgia city eliminates police department

Varnell City Council votes 3-1 to disband the agency, putting Whitfield County Sheriff's Office in charge of law enforcement

July 12th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Staff file photo by Tim Barber / Varnell Chief of Police Lyle Grant stands outside his temporary police headquarters in 2013.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

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VARNELL, Ga. — An entire police department was eliminated Tuesday morning, without warning.

The Varnell City Council voted 3-1 to disband the agency, with the majority of the council members saying they believe the Whitfield County Sheriff's Office can properly protect residents. The meeting was advertised as an opportunity to discuss employees — namely, Chief Lyle Grant, whom the council suspended two weeks ago.

Instead, Councilman Jan Pourquoi made a motion to eliminate the entire agency, which employs five full-time officers and four or five part-timers. Councilman David Owens seconded the motion, and Councilwoman Andrea Gordy sided with them, tipping the scales. Councilwoman Ashlee Godfrey was the lone "no" vote, though Mayor Anthony Hulsey said he opposed the decision.

Owens later said shedding the department will save the city money and boost its reputation after some controversial cases. He told residents to expect more money for playgrounds and a community center coordinator.

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"It's going to free up a lot of funds for this council to use for quality of life purposes," he said. "... There will be a lot of good to come back to citizens."

Godfrey, however, criticized the other council members for rushing the decision. They had not moved to eliminate the department publicly before the vote, and she believes the elected officials should have held weeks of meetings to discuss everything about what would happen next.

"You plan those things," she said. "That's any decision in life — at least it should be."

Among the concerns: What will happen with any active investigations? Alex Long, district manager of the Anejo Grill on Cleveland Highway, said someone broke into the Mexican restaurant around midnight Sunday. They took a cook's bicycle from the kitchen.

Long said his security cameras captured the thief. He gave the footage to Kevin Brooks, a part-time investigator for the agency, who planned to post it on the department's Facebook page this morning. They hoped someone would identify the suspect. Now, Brooks is out of a job.

"For a city to decide to get rid of all law enforcement officials whatsoever, and allowing the cases we had to go unsolved — burglaries and all the other things we've had to go unsolved — is about the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life," he said after Tuesday's vote.

For his part, Whitfield County Sheriff Scott Chitwood said members of his department will take over any active investigations from the city of Varnell. But Brooks doubts a property crime case will get much attention from an agency that handles cases with more blood and drugs.

Chitwood also said some deputies were already patrolling Varnell, even though the city had its own department. But Grant said "patrol" was not the most accurate term. With the sheriff's office already spread thin, he said, deputies usually drove through on their way to other parts of the county.

For violent cases that required more attention, Grant said, the police department usually turned those cases over to the sheriff's office. Still, he said, their small agency stayed busy. Varnell Municipal Court records show the city filed about 1,500 cases a year from 2013-15 — 96 percent of them traffic violations.

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Tuesday's decision is rooted in a June 13 arrest, when Grant responded to a domestic violence call at the home of Councilman Sheldon Fowler. Grant said the elected official was drunk, yelled at the officers and poked them in the chest.

He said Fowler's wife did not want her husband arrested. She just wanted the officers to help him go to sleep. Grant said he asked Fowler's wife and two daughters to leave the house for about an hour, hoping Fowler would doze off.

Nine days later, he filed charges against Fowler: simple assault, disorderly conduct and simple battery on a police officer. Before filing the charges, he said he ran the case by the mayor and other council members, asking whether they felt Fowler should be charged.

The councilman agreed to resign after turning himself in to the Whitfield County Jail last month. The council then voted to suspend Grant and ask the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to review how he handled Fowler's case. The council members later learned the GBI doesn't do that kind of consultation, and they called for Tuesday's meeting.

Grant said the decision to disband the department was politically motivated. He said Pourquoi, who filed the motion for Tuesday's vote, is going to run for mayor in November, when three council seats are also up for election. Grant believes Pourquoi is trying to garner attention, though he wasn't clear about why this would win him votes.

Pourquoi did not return an email or a note left at his house seeking comment Tuesday. But Owens, one of the council members who voted to disband the department, said there are several good reasons for the move.

First, he believes it will save them money. According to a 2015 audit, the most recent one available online, the city spent about $300,000 on public safety. (It also received about $200,000 from fines.)

Owens also blamed the police for a $22,000 increase in the city's liability insurance the past two years, pointing to a couple of car crashes. In 2012, off-duty Officer James Smith killed a newspaper delivery man during a wreck. This netted a $650,000 settlement. Two years later, another officer crashed his car while making a U-turn, leading to a $270,000 settlement.

Owens also criticized how Grant handled the Fowler investigation, though he didn't bring up any specific problems.

After Tuesday's meeting, Grant told officers to drop off their shirts, belts, guns and anything else the city gave them. They also parked their patrol cars in front of city hall, leaving them abandoned for now.

Like Godfrey, Grant believes the decision was too rushed.

Asked about that, Owens said the council's meeting was legally advertised, and residents are always welcome to attend. (Grant said only two members of the community were there, city employees and journalists notwithstanding.)

Asked if he felt the council handled the situation as well as they could have, Owens said, "No comment."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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