Sam Heaton, Cobb’s acting director of public safety, insists the police facility provides more thorough training for its officers.
Sheriff Neil Warren says that may be so, “but look at what it’s costing.”
The two academies were also a “key concern” of the county’s Citizens Oversight Committee. In its report last February, the committee wrote: “The (Board of Commissioners) must re-visit the decision made more than a decade ago to develop and maintain two separate law enforcement training facilities,” and noted concerns with cost and duplication and consistent standards and also pointed out that “communication and camaraderie between departments and agencies suffers.”
“Different agencies (Sheriff, Police and Fire) can and should be able to set their own, particularized course and training requirements, which may differ in some particulars; but these can and should be accommodated in a single training facility,” the report states. It “may require some costs to expand and modify the NCGLEA, for example, but overall and in the long-term, such a decision would pay positive and significant dividends.”
It costs about $500,000 per year to operate NCGLEA, which is in Austell, and the county contributes about half of that.
Meanwhile, the Cobb Police training center’s annual operating and personnel costs are just under $1 million.
Heaton said Cobb County spends about $25,000 to send one police recruit through 25 weeks at the training academy, though that includes the recruit’s pay.
Regional academies, like the NCGLEA, provide just 10 weeks of basic, or mandate, training.
The police academy is more thorough, he said, “to ensure we field the best trained police officers possible.”
“The citizens of Cobb County deserve to be served and protected by officers that are trained better than the bare minimum required by the state,” he said. “The result is hard to measure in dollars.
“It is difficult to measure the value of a life saved by an officer because of this additional training, or the value of liability avoided when an officer makes a good decision that was based upon additional training,” he said.
The separate police academy also allows the department to provide consistent physical training, Heaton said.
“A fit officer is better qualified to protect citizens and themselves,” he said.
There are 608 Cobb Police officers, including command staff.
This year, the department has hired 45 new officers, all of whom go through about 25 weeks of initial training, followed by 14 weeks on the beat with a field training officer. After that, they are riding solo in a police vehicle, but have their performance monitored weekly by shift sergeants for six weeks.
In 2007, Cobb Police hired 81 new officers. In 2002, the number was 53.
The salary for a Cobb police officer ranges from about $38,000 to $63,000.
The police training center, which is off of County Services Parkway in Marietta, has 13 sworn officers on staff and three civilians.
Sheriff Warren favors consolidation of the two academies, at least for basic training. Police from the six cities in Cobb, as well as surrounding counties and cities elsewhere, send their officers to NCGLEA and contribute toward its costs and operations.
“Police, deputies, city officers … we all work together,” he said. “Crime crosses jurisdictions.”
Warren said Cobb’s choice to create and fund its own police academy in part caused the state to cut back on money sent to the NCGLEA.
The state collects fines and fees on traffic tickets and criminal offenses, and the money is intended to pay for police training.
Although Cobb sent $1.7 million in such money to the state in 2010, he said, the amount returned for NCGLEA was less than half a million dollars. State budget officials have warned that all state money for NCGLEA will be eliminated next year, Warren said.
“Cobb County taxpayers are getting ripped off,” he said.
Heaton is hesitant on the idea of consolidating the two academies.
“I would never say it can’t be done, but I’m not sure it would be very efficient,” he said. “It’s different training all together. At a short glance, it appears to make sense to join everything. But it would take a more in-depth study to see what exactly is needed for the county and the region.”
Space is also an issue, he said.
“They stay busy and we stay busy,” Heaton said. “We’re bursting at the seams at our training facility. It is almost always packed.”
As for the argument that some Cobb Police officers take their premier training and leave for other departments, the numbers don’t indicate a mass exodus.
In 2011 — the year of the furloughs — 14 officers who left Cobb Police said they were doing so to take law-enforcement jobs elsewhere. In 2010, the number was five. There were seven each in 2009 and 2008, according to the department.
Those who gave reasons for leaving listed better pay, better opportunities, better morale and feeling appreciated, Heaton said.
“We want to provide the best training, so we can provide the best public safety to citizens,” Heaton said. “I don’t think you give that up based on personnel possibly leaving your department.”
Sheriff Warren, though, said officers leaving for greener pastures is nothing new.
“A lot of the smaller cities won’t hire someone who isn’t already certified, because they don’t want to spend the extra money training them,” he said.
Deputies who leave the Cobb sheriff’s office within two years are asked to reimburse their training costs.
State law allows cities and county police to recoup such costs as well, but Cobb Police don’t do that. They don’t want an officer to stay on the job just to avoid paying back the cost, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.