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Officers to appeal policy change

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Some Clayton County Police officers are planning to approach the board of commissioners at Tuesday night's meeting to appeal a new vehicle policy.

The policy, passed in November and scheduled to take effect next month, will prohibit officers from driving home their department-assigned cars, if they live outside of the county. Previously, officers, and many other county employees, were allowed to take the vehicles home, if they lived fewer than 25 miles from the county.

The new policy is intended to save money and stop some gratuitous violations of the 25-mile rule. But some officers say the policy will make their lives harder, hurt them economically, and make the county less safe.

Word was being passed around the county department last week that appealing officers should remain respectful and professional, when they make two-minute comments before the board, and that officers ought not wear their uniforms.

Some officers said the board's decision was hurting morale, and many were expected to show up, though how many remained unclear on Monday.

"This is something I strongly hope the county commissioners will reconsider," said Anthony Thuman, president of the county's Police Benevolent Association and a county police officer. "A lot of officers have grown to depend on that vehicle," Thuman said.

David Lovett, a detective who lives a few miles outside of Clayton's borders, said he has responded to calls about stolen cars, pursuits and officers in need of assistance, while on his way into work, into the county, in his police car. Under the new policy, he will not be able to respond to any calls for service, until he arrives at headquarters and picks up his assigned vehicle.

"[The policy is] crippling law enforcement," he said. "Now, we're just going to be regular citizens, on that drive in. We can call 911 and say, 'Hey, there's something over there,' and forego all our training and experience. We have all this equipment out here, and now, it is going to be sitting in the parking lot at headquarters, and I'm stuck in traffic, like everyone else, trying to get to an emergency situation."

Lovett said he lives a few miles into Henry County, and bought the house, five years ago, because the school system was better for his kids and because policing where you live can cause problems. An officer for 25 years, he's had a take-home car for 20, and said the vehicle is a financial benefit.

Thuman said the recently-reversed vehicle policy financially helped officers, who often have to work second, and sometimes third, jobs to supplement their police pay. The policy was also a draw, Thuman said, when the department was hiring.

"I'm hoping this doesn't cause officers and prospective officers to go to other agencies that may offer a take-home-car benefit," he said. "The officers are looking at it from an economic standpoint."

The county was forced to make the decision because of economic factors, like the price of gas, according to Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell. The county's fuel spending jumped, he said, "from $2 million annually, to almost $3 million, and possibly more this year."

Bell said the commissioners have received regular complaints, from citizens, about the police cars leaving Clayton County, and Katherine Dodson, the county's director of risk management and insurance, felt the new policy was necessary.

"It's difficult to justify, as to why we should allow 200 to 300 vehicles outside the county," Bell said. "If one lives in the county, you can justify it by saying the police cars, in the neighborhoods, increase police presence and make those neighborhoods safer, but how does that work when you live outside the county?"

According to Bell, the 25-mile rule wasn't being enforced, and some cars had reportedly been spotted as far away as Jackson Lake, in Butts County, and in western Cobb County.

County Police Chief Jeff Turner opposed to new policy when it was passed, saying it did not take into consideration the special circumstances of police work.

The officers, he said, are on call, and can not respond to a scene in their personal vehicle.

The policy allows exceptions, but each case must be presented to the five-member board and voted on. Bell said the commissioners have received some exception requests, but have, so far, rejected all of them.

Bell, the former chief of the Atlanta Police Department, said he will listen to the officers, at the meeting, but that the commissioners are required to make tough decisions.

"The whole thing," he said, "is the kind of situation where there is a difficult choice for the board to make."

The commission meeting will be held at the Clayton County Administration Annex, 112 Smith Street, Jonesboro, at 7 p.m.