Cobb’s previous public safety director, Jack Forsythe, resigned in a scathing Jan. 6 letter where he accused Hankerson of blocking his efforts to help a police force Forsythe said lacks the resources to keep the public safe.
Heaton, who served as interim public safety director prior to commissioners hiring Forsythe one year ago, was appointed to the position permanently in a 4-0 vote. County Chairman Tim Lee was absent because he was visiting with an economic development prospect.
Commissioners raised Heaton’s salary from $124,983 to $138,000, the same amount Forsythe was paid.
The county’s public safety department has a budget of $143.5 million, including 655 firefighting positions and 609 sworn police officer positions.
“Just as I do with all the department heads, if Chief Heaton brings me a recommendation, and he’s got the documentation, we will support him 100 percent and move forward to address any concerns,” Hankerson said after the meeting. “Public safety is a top priority for us, and we just don’t say no to public safety, so we will support the director and our recommendation to the board.”
Down 70 police officers
In a Jan. 6 letter to Lee, Forsythe wrote that the attrition rate in the police department has become a critical issue, with Cobb losing 70 officers in 2013.
“Currently, we only have 510 available officers of our authorized force of 610,” Forsythe wrote.
Forsythe reminded Lee of a briefing he gave Lee and Hankerson on “sexploitation” crimes and how Cobb detectives are only able to handle about 10 percent of the crimes, “leaving thousands of victimized children whose offender will never be brought to justice.”
There is also a shortage of detectives for gang activities and other special units, he said.
“With our homicide unit being overtaxed, it makes it more difficult to contend with the most recent rise in homicides,” Forsythe wrote.
Another topic Forsythe raises in his letter to Lee was a police management study for which he had issued a request for proposals. When Hankerson found out about the study, he stopped it, according to Forsythe, claiming Cobb residents weren’t yet ready to hear what the findings would be.
Average turnover in past years is between 40 and 50 people, so losing 30 more officers than average in 2013 is a big jump, Hankerson admitted.
“So I think when you have those kind of indicators, you need to look at it and see why,” Hankerson said. “We charged the director to look at those issues, tell us why and what his recommendation is to reverse that trend.”
Hankerson expects Heaton will bring forth recommendations in the next week or two.
“If the new director brings recommendations to address public safety, which has always been a high priority of this board, we will address those,” Hankerson said.
Hankerson also answered Forsythe’s concern that with the Atlanta Braves moving here in 2017, more police officers would be needed. He said Heaton and Cobb Police Chief John Houser would be meeting with the Braves to come up with a plan for hiring new officers.
“It’s unclear how many,” Hankerson said. “One would think once you add that venue and other surrounding venues or the plans that the Braves got for the development of the other area, one would assume that there will be a need for additional staff, how many I don’t know, but we will refer to our public safety director and police chief as to what those needs are and we will support it.”
Hankerson: No road blocks
Hankerson denied that he obstructed efforts to protect the public.
“That’s probably where we have a difference of opinion,” he said. “I’m not a manager that throws up road blocks, not getting into specifics, but safety has always been an issue and high priority for this board and this county manager.”
Since he was named interim public safety director last week, Heaton has met with police command staff as well as officers on the streets, commissioners and Hankerson.
“I have spent much of the last week perusing much of the information that Director Forsythe had put forward, so I want to make sure that the concerns he has brought forward are the concerns of the people, and from that I’m going to try to devise a short-term plan that officers will see that the elected officials and the county manager do care and are concerned, and the short-term plan to address part of that, and the long-term plan to address the more costly thing that looks like is going to be coming into place,” Heaton said.