Vehicles routinely out of county

By Ed Brock

Some Clayton County law enforcement vehicles are sometimes up to 25 miles outside county limits.

The practice of letting officers take their cars home with them is common and agencies that allow it defend the practice and say it is beneficial to the community in many ways. It saves money on maintaining the cars, puts more marked cars in the community and improves police response time, said spokespeople from several agencies.

Officers with the Clayton County Police Department and the county's sheriff's office are allowed to take their cars home if they live in the county or in a 25-mile radius around the county. There are exemptions even to the 25-mile limit, Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.

"Most of the people who have taken home cars are either in special units, SWAT, K-9 and explosive ordnance disposal officers, or they're detectives, supervisors or senior patrol officers," Turner said. "They are always on call. If something happens in the middle of the night they have to jump up and respond."

Officers in the special units also often have special equipment that they must keep in their cars.

"And K-9 officers have to take care of their dogs at their houses," Turner said.

The policy of the county's sheriff's office on taking cars homes mirrors the police department's policy, Sheriff Stanley Tuggle said. Improved response time is the biggest benefit.

"The deputies have the ability to respond a lot quicker than if they had to come back here and get their vehicle and then respond," Tuggle said.

Most of the county police officers who take their cars home live either in the county or just on the outskirts, with maybe one or two living further out, Turner said.

Tuggle and Turner also said letting officers keep the same car all the time saves money in the long run because the officers take better care of a vehicle they use everyday. Riverdale police Officer Debra Johnson said the same thing.

"That car is your second home," Johnson said.

The Riverdale Police Department allows officers to take their cars home if they live within 25 miles of the city, Johnson said.

Also, Turner said there have been several instances in which off-duty officers who were at home or working part-time jobs with the cars with them were able to foil crimes or respond to emergency situations because they heard the incident call over the radio.

For example, Turner said, in the Feb. 7 beating death of Tacara Judon of Jonesboro an off-duty officer was in his patrol car when he heard that call. He responded and arrested the suspect in the case, 39-year-old Robert Foster of Stone Mountain.

Deputies commuting in from outside the county can also stop to help people in trouble until the local officers can arrive, Tuggle said.

The Forest Park Police Department does not allow officers to keep their cars off duty, Police Capt. Chris Matson said, but only because they don't currently have enough cars to do it.

"You pretty much have to double your fleet to start it," Matson said. "Once you get the start up going I understand it's more cost effective."

And if the opportunity arises to start the practice, Forest Park Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs said, he would certainly like to see it.

"A cop's car is basically his or her office," Hobbs said, adding that it's difficult to share an office with many other people. "But for right now it's not plausible."

Something about the practice made Kimberly Burke of Conley concerned.

"Personally I think it could be quite dangerous," Burke said. "What if somebody has a personal vendetta against a cop."

Burke said she did see an advantage in improved response times. Margaret Smith of Jonesboro was less impressed.

"That's county taxpayer's money," Smith said. "I don't feel like they should take them home because we're footing the bill."

But whether they are in or out of the county, Turner said, the officers are still expected to obey the rules of the road. Any citizen's complaint about officers who speed or disobey traffic laws while driving a county vehicle will be dealt with, Turner added.