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County enacts stricter vehicle policy

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

In two weeks, not every county employee, who wants to drive home a county car, will be allowed to do it.

Starting Feb. 1, unless approved on a case-by-case basis by the board of commissioners, employees will no longer be able to drive home their county-owned vehicles.

The decision will have its greatest impact on the police force where there are 205 cars assigned to officers, and 154 are driven home by police personnel. In February, the number of drive-home cars will be reduced to 68.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted on the change in policy Tuesday night.

"It is time for us to stop paying $3 million a year in fuel," said Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell, a supporter of the policy. "We must cite prudent reasons as to what we do, not what we used to do. Required usage has to go into it, not just, 'I'm on call back,'" he added.

"How can you live 40 miles away and get back in eight minutes," Bell continued. "Those are the kind of things that we have to delineate at the operational level."

However, the new policy does not have the support of Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner.

Turner said the restrictions will handicap his operations and unnecessarily punish officers, who have demonstrated a need for take-home vehicles.

Turner noted that under the old policy, officers could take their cars home, if they lived within 25 miles of the county.

Turner said the move could have a serious impact on officers who use the cars to respond to after-hours emergencies.

Before Tuesday, the county had approved about 30 at-discretion vehicles to be used by Chief Jeff Turner for K-9 units and undercover narcotics agents, during the hours they actively carry out investigations.

On Tuesday, the BOC voted down a motion made by Commissioner Wole Ralph for Bell to go back to the negotiating table with Turner and other department heads. Then commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a motion made by Commissioner Michael Edmondson to accept Bell's original recommendation to supply the police with 40 discretionary vehicles in addition to the 30 that already were approved.

The discretionary cars will apply to special-operation units, such as the SWAT team and the bomb squad. However, the criminal investigation division, school resource officers, and command staff officers will have to drive home their own cars.

Chief Turner was not alone in his objection to the policy change.

During the public comment section of the meeting, the vehicle policy was assailed.

"Every citizen in this county is in jeopardy if those police cars are not available for emergency response," said resident, Don Mosley. "When you take someone, who lives out of the county, to come into the county and swap vehicles to come in, that's a loss of time."

He said the tighter restrictions would cause a "mass exodus" of officers.

"When you start taking away privileges, you are going to start losing people," Mosley said.

Rosa Barbee, of Rex, said she would march and do "whatever I have to do" to influence the county to reverse the decision.

Anthony Thumany, of the Police Benevolent Association, which represents several hundred officers in the county, said the new vehicle policy may potentially be more costly than the previous policy. He said the county is liable to insure officers called to duty whether they are driving county cars or their own.

"If we have called you, to ask you to respond as a law enforcement officer, there is no difference between your personal vehicle and your law enforcement vehicle other than the markings on the side and the lights on the top," said Thumany.

Bell said "demonstrated need" rather than "rhetoric" is needed before he would consider changing the policy.