Lance LoRusso, counsel for the Cobb County lodge of the FOP, general counsel for the Georgia FOP and a former police officer, made a presentation regarding the problems the county’s police force faces to the commissioners during the public comment section of their meeting Tuesday.
The biggest issue facing the department is officer retention, LoRusso told the MDJ, and he was critical of the Board of Commissioners, saying the issue has not been a focus of theirs over the last five to six years.
Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee disagreed, saying the commissioners are aware of the retention issue and Sam Heaton, the county’s director of Public Safety, is working on recommendations the commissioners hope to address in the county’s budget for the next fiscal year, which Lee hopes the board will approve next month.
“(Heaton has) basically worked with me and (County Manager David) Hankerson over the last couple of months, with (Cobb Police) Chief (John) Houser putting all that together. He’s made a recommendation to myself and to Hankerson that we are reviewing, and (we) hope to come back with some type of program to help him address his retention needs in the next few weeks.”
LoRusso said the retention issue is critical because the shortage of officers available to patrol takes away from the department’s other responsibilities.
“They’re now reactive, not proactive,” he said at the meeting. “They’re waiting for the next call or crisis. You have special units answering calls because that’s all they can do just to get them done. You have detective units that are so short (staffed) they’re not investigating burglaries, they’re working beats.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, LoRusso said 35 sworn employees have retired from the Cobb County Department of Public Safety and 194 sworn employees have left since 2011. There are 60 vacancies for sworn employees as of July 1, he added.
“At the current rate, more than 10 percent of the sworn officers will have left in 2014,” LoRusso said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Replacing them with new recruits is not the answer. The seasoned officers are taking experience and training with them.”
Cobb County police officers are some of the best trained law enforcement officers in the Southeast, LoRusso told the MDJ, making them a recruiting target for every other jurisdiction. Rather than lowering the standards of the Cobb police to bring in new recruits, LoRusso said the solution to the shortage is to make Cobb County a better place to work in order to retain employees and draw officers from other jurisdictions.
“We need action now to keep the law enforcement officers that are well-trained in Cobb County. It costs about $80,000 to train a Cobb County police officer,” LoRusso said at the meeting Tuesday. “We don’t need to lower our training standards. We need to make it more attractive for people to come here.”
The employee-borne costs of benefits, such as health care, have also gone up over the last several years, so officers are taking less money home, LoRusso said. When asked how the county could remedy the situation, he cited increased pay and other incentives — such as an increased pay for officers with advanced degrees — as some of the ways the county could encourage officer retention.
Assigned cars for officers are another improvement the county should make, LoRusso said, adding the cars aren’t perks, but a necessity.
“Cobb County — without assigned cars — is doing business the way law enforcement was done 20 years ago, where people sit and wait for the next shift to be able to get into a car and go to work,” LoRusso said at the meeting Tuesday. “I need you to rally before it gets worse. You’re not years away from a crisis, you’re six months to a year away from crisis.”
Lee said if Heaton recommends increased pay and assigned cars as solutions to the retention problem, they will have to be addressed in the budget process.
While there are already proposals for improvements to the Cobb Police department’s infrastructure — including a new $23.3 million public safety training facility and a new $16 million police headquarters to be built with a proposed special one percent sales tax — LoRusso said those improvements are years away and the commissioners need to take more immediate steps.
“I’m asking for urgency and action. I saw this commission jump into action and do everything necessary to bring the Braves to Cobb County. That’s great. But it’s going to bring increased public safety concerns,” LoRusso said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Lee responded to LoRusso’s call for urgency by saying the process is complex and it takes time to make these kinds of changes because they require short- and long-term benefit evaluations, a plan to fund the changes so they are sustainable and consensus from command staff and management.
“It’s unfortunate Lance feels we aren’t moving fast enough for him, but he has the luxury of not having the responsibility of figuring out how’s the best way to move forward and keep it within budget and address the root cause of the issue, which is not always the same as he articulates,” Lee said.
After his presentation at the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, Lee and LoRusso had a terse interaction.
Lee asked LoRusso if he’d been in contact with the county’s director of public safety, Sam Heaton, and said he wants to make sure LoRusso is aware of what the commissioners are doing to address the issues he brought up. LoRusso said he had, and he was looking forward to seeing what the commissioners might do.
“You know what we’re doing,” Lee responded as LoRusso was walking away.
This is not the first time these issues have been presented to the commissioners this year. In January, the county’s public safety director, Jack Forsythe, resigned from his post after only a year on the job. In his resignation letter to County Manager David Hankerson dated Jan. 6, Forsythe said the county “has suffered from a lack of sufficient funding and resources to properly sustain the appropriate level of personnel, facilities and equipment needed to provide an adequate level of protection for the citizens of Cobb County.”
In his letter, Forsythe went on to say he has notified both Hankerson and Lee “for over one year now” about the “crisis that has been developing within the police department as a result of the number of officers leaving the department and the county’s inability to attract and retain new recruits, and the need and justification for an increase in authorized officer strength.”