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BOC votes to reassign Turner

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall and Linda Looney-Bond

jhall@news-daily.com

Jeff Turner, the highest ranking black officer in the history of the Clayton County Police Department, has been removed as the county's police chief.

Effective today, Turner has been reassigned as director of the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy, which on Monday was made into a separate county department. Tim Robinson, formerly the police department's deputy chief, was chosen to replace Turner as the department's interim chief.

On Dec. 22, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners threatened to reassign Turner after county Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas publicly read a lengthy audit, critical of Turner's management of the department. The audit made claims that the loss of police weapons, pursuits resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders, sexual harassment, vital crime statistics being kept from the Sheriff's Office, and negligence in destroying seized narcotics all took place in the department on Turner's watch.

Hundreds of citizens, many of them in vocal support of Turner, crowded into the Clayton County Administration Building on Monday night to hear the board render its verdict on Turner's 27-page answer to the audit, received by the board that afternoon.

After a 30-minute, closed-door executive session, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to establish the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy as a separate department. The board voted 4-1 (Chairman Eldrin Bell opposed) to reassign Turner to the academy and appoint Robinson as interim police chief.

Turner, who was unanimously appointed as the county's first black police chief on March 20, 2007, told commissioners in his response that the chief of staff's audit ignored "both fact and history," and that he was being removed based on "alleged deficiencies that pre-date my administration as the Chief of Police by decades." He added that the audit was "based on the recommendations of a person that has not managed a police department one day in his life [Cohilas] and a man whose management of a police department spanned only four years and ended 15 years ago [Bell]."

Answering to one accusation by Cohilas that he ignored "the Chairman's key directive" while dealing with an Internal Affairs investigation of several police officers, Turner said he was being punished for asking for the assistance of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, rather than keeping "internal investigations in-house."

"I am in a quandary as to how to reconcile the Chief of Staff's concern for the reputation of the Department and the men and women of it with a 'key directive' to keep a 'serious, sensitive, and far reaching' investigation in-house," Turner said in his statement. "Even if I had been ordered to conduct the investigation and had not already sent it to the GBI and DA [district attorney], continuing to investigate in-house would have only cast a cloud upon the reputations of all."

Turner, who makes approximately $117,000 a year in salary, will be transferred to the regional law enforcement academy with equal pay, according to county Staff Attorney Michael Smith.

On Monday, Turner, a 22-year veteran of the department and the third black officer it hired, reacted to the board's final decision with disappointment. He said the board's actions left him publicly "embarrassed and humiliated."

"This is something that could have been done in executive session," Turner said. "If they had laid down [the] 11 points to me, just like I wrote the rebuttal, I would have had time to digest the audit, and redirect it, and [would have] cleared up a lot of those facts. A lot of those points were not discussed with me prior to this.

"I think we made great strides in the county," Turner continued. "We were able to reduce crime. We're in the neighborhoods and the communities. We're well respected and liked by a number of the citizens in Clayton County, so again, the move is disappointing to me. I think it's more or less of a personal nature, because there's no way in my mind that they could justify or say that I did not do a good job."

Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough was cited in Cohilas' audit of the police department as having made "several complaints" since the summer about the police department not "sharing vital crime statistics" with the Sheriff's Office. Kimbrough, who was present at the meeting, said some areas of the audit were "misleading."

"There have been a number of informal conversations between the members of my department in the Sheriff's Office regarding the sharing of crime data ... we did seek access to those reports -- just to be added to the distribution list," Kimbrough said. "Those discussions were not fruitful, however, I did not directly ask Chief Turner, nor did Chief Turner directly deny me access to those reports. Now, I shared those things with Chief Cohilas -- not raising a formal complaint on the issue. I think it is a little bit misleading, though, to characterize it as discord or a disagreement between us and the police department. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Cohilas declined to comment immediately after Monday's meeting and could not be reached for comment by cell phone later in the evening.

Commissioners Michael Edmondson, Gail Hambrick and Sonna Singleton could not be reached for comment by phone following the meeting.

Commissioner Wole Ralph said Turner's reassignment was "carefully considered by the board."

"The chairman [Bell] indicated he wanted to fire Turner and the board wanted to utilize his best assets by reassigning him," he said.

The office manager for the Board of Commissioners, Rose De Jesus, said Bell was in his office following the meeting, but would not answer questions from the media Monday evening.

A reporter attempted to reach Bell by phone Monday evening, following the meeting, but a returned call was not received.

"We had to deal with some serious issues related to the management of the department," Ralph said. "One-hundred-and-thirty-eight missing guns is incredibly significant. Two-thousand or 3,000 pounds of narcotics that have destruction orders is significant. There [are] a lot things that Chief Turner does incredibly well, but there were a number of things that were problematic for the county. We thought [the law enforcement academy] was the best place to utilize his skills."

Two citizens took to the microphone during the board's executive session and spoke in support of Turner's firing.

One woman, who did not identify herself, made claims that she was mistreated by officers under Turner's watch.

Wayne Madden, a resident of the River's Edge Plantation, said he believes Turner was mismanaging the department.

"I'm in full agreement with what the board did," Madden said. "Your police officers don't have to like you. You have to create a culture where these kind of things don't happen."

Lake City Mayor Willie Oswalt said he was disappointed by the board's decision to reassign Turner to the law enforcement academy.

"All the mayors, we are behind Turner 100 percent," said Oswalt, who serves as chairman of the Clayton County Municipal Association. "He has worked with each municipality and our chiefs. Jeff has worked tirelessly to better this county. They [the board] are taking their own course because Jeff won't bow down to them."

"A lot of stuff has happened in this county that was never brought out like this," said Chester Cheney, a resident of the Windgate Hills subdivision. "It makes me believe someone is trying to railroad him [Turner]. I've read the accusations and I don't think they warrant the punishment. Look at what Victor Hill did and they didn't punish him anywhere what they did to Chief Turner."

Robinson, who will take office today as interim police chief, said he has worked with Turner throughout the former chief's entire law enforcement career. He said he has been asked by the board to "clean up" problems in the police department within the next 30 days.

"This is indeed a day of mixed emotions," Robinson said. "He [Turner] is a friend. However, there are serious challenges that confront the police department and the community. I look forward to working with the Board of Commissioners and the men and women of the Clayton County Police Department to address these issues."

Turner's attorney, Keith Martin, said Monday that he hasn't "explored anything beyond preparation for tonight," in regard to a possible appeal of the reassignment. Turner said he will pray and prepare for his new job.

"I've been reassigned to the police academy, so I will be there, and I intend on doing just a good job there, as I have at the police department," Turner said. "Right now, I'm going to digest what happened tonight, and then I'll pray on it, and then I'll pick up tomorrow and move on from there."