The Georgia House of Representatives voted in favor of an effort that would dissolve the Glynn County Police Department in response to its handling of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. The move is being touted as the first step in passing legislation that allows a county police department to be dissolved and move the authority to a county sheriff’s department.
The vote was taken on Friday. The vote (152-3) allows voters to decide the fate of their local county police department. Some counties in Georgia have county police departments, including the large counties in the Atlanta area – Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton, and Gwinnett counties. In counties with two agencies, the county police handle the enforcement of state and local laws while the sheriff’s office manages the jail.
This move was taken after the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick. Though the legislation isn’t specifically about Arbery, officially speaking, in reality it is because of Arbery’s case. The Glynn County Police Department has been exposed for having a history of problems and the Georgia legislature is ready to do something through legislation to address the problems.
“There have been too many missteps over there,” said state Rep. Al Williams, a Democrat from Midway. “It’s time to be going in a different direction.”
This is not the first attempt at such legislation. In January, before Arbery was killed in February, a version of this bill was introduced in the Georgia Senate. The bill, Senate Bill 38, was in response to the years of problems coming from the Glynn County Police Department. The Senate bill didn’t go anywhere at the time but after the Arbery shooting, it was revived. This is why I say that though Arbery’s name isn’t on the House bill, the motivation came as a result of his shooting. The legislation moving forward now applies statewide but clearly targets the Glynn County Police Department.
State Sen. William Ligon is putting forward legislation in that body of the legislature. The House bill that passed Friday will be a companion bill to Ligon’s legislation, Senate Bill 317. (State Rep. Don Hogan put forth the House bill.) Hogan said earlier this week that the House bill was coming up for a vote this week.
“The law is that you can allow voters to, through local legislation, put in a police department, but not that you can allow voters to abolish one,” Hogan said. “I got a house bill that’s just about finished. I’m going to try to pick it up this afternoon and get some signatures on it and drop it (Thursday).”
State Senator Ligon explains that this is a two-step process to get legislation through the General Assembly. There is a regular bill and a local bill that allows county residents to vote on the legislation on a ballot.
“This is not a constitutional amendment, which requires a two-thirds vote,” Ligon said. “This is general legislation, which requires a majority vote of the House and Senate.”
If the bill gets through General Assembly, legislators would follow up with a piece of local legislation to put the matter to a public vote and then to enact the result of the vote.
If it doesn’t pass, a local bill specifically to ask Glynn County citizens whether or not they wanted to dissolve the police department would not be proper, Ligon said, as no mechanism would exist to allow the state to dissolve local law enforcement agencies.
The House bill will also include a sunset clause, Hogan said. It will cease to be effective on July 1, 2021, as currently written.
In other words, after county voters have approved a referendum, a county police department can be dissolved through a local act of the General Assembly or a resolution of the governing authority of that county. This allows county residents to streamline two agencies into one law enforcement agency.
If the voters approved a referendum and the county government or General Assembly then passed their respective resolution or act, the county police department would have to cease operations within 180 days, at such time all property, documents and the like would go to the county sheriff.
State Rep. Jeff Jones isn’t convinced this legislation is the answer. He’s not convinced that the state should have the power to take such actions. Last September, a grand jury heard a presentation from (Brunswick Judicial Circuit) District Attorney which Jones says was one-sided. Neither the chief of police nor the county commissioners were asked to participate in the investigation into the allegations of impropriety between county officers and informants. The grand jury recommended giving voters the chance to decide whether or not to dissolve the police department.
“Our cities and our counties do not want to open the door to letting the General Assembly begin interfering and dictating what are clearly home-rule responsibility,” Jones said. “To do so creates a dangerous, open-ended precedent that we would not be able to retreat from.”
“I am concerned about the way this is moving forward, and I felt it was important to get a legal opinion about this legislation that is proposed by Rep. Hogan and Sen. Ligon,” Jones said. “I believe we are entering into potentially dangerous territory when we start putting items or areas of community responsibility that are clearly outlined and dictated by the Georgia Constitution up for a public popularity poll.”
Some county commissioners are resisting the idea of combining city and county government, which they fear would continue to happen if the law enforcement agencies were turned into one agency. One Democrat voiced support for the current county sheriff but warned that this could turn out to be a slippery slope. The authors of the House and Senate bills are Republicans.
“One word in the legislation needs to be changed to do the same thing to the city police department if this passes with the county,” Booker said. “It’s a power play for folks who want all law enforcement under the sheriff. While I think Neal Jump is a good person, and I told him this, if he was going to live forever I would support this. But he’s not going to live forever.”
None of the commissioners had anything bad to say about Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump, but they, like Booker, feared what might happen under another sheriff.
“Whether it’s put under Sheriff Jump is irrelevant,” Brunson said. “I have no issues with Neal Jump, but tell me who’s going to be the sheriff next year? Who’s going to be the sheriff in 2025?”
He said sheriffs are rarely defeated by challengers in a public vote, but that county commissioners can take direct action to hold a police chief accountable.
“If they’re happy with the way something’s run, vote us out of office and elect people that you agree with,” Brunson said. “If we do away with home rule then we’ve got a real problem.”
The legislation isn’t so simple after all, is it? The next move is for the House bill to move to the state Senate for further consideration.