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Community shows support at Turner fund-raiser

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

Residents, neighborhood watch groups, police officers and elected officials gathered at Luella's Restaurant & Sports Bar in Jonesboro this week to honor former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner, and to raise money for his legal defense.

A ceremony and fund-raiser took place on Thursday night for Turner, whose employment with the county was eliminated earlier this month with the closure of the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy.

Attorneys for Turner have been in a battle with the Clayton County Board of Commissioners since December, when the board publicly accused Turner of mismanaging the police department. On Dec. 29, the board voted to transfer him to head the county police academy and, in turn, voted to make the academy a separate department from the police department.

The board closed the police academy on Aug. 6, leaving Turner and five others unemployed.

Turner said Thursday's fund-raiser raised "over a couple thousand" dollars for his legal defense fund. "A lot of people have indicated that they would be willing to continue to donate, because they feel an injustice was done," said Turner.

"I'm actively out seeking employment ... my attorney bills are adding up, and my attorneys are working with me. This relief fund that the citizens are donating is definitely a great help to me and my family," he said.

Turner said he supports a wife and four children, three of whom are currently enrolled in college. Prior to being terminated, Turner, 46, had served the county police force for 24 years and 11 months -- just one month short of being able to draw retirement benefits at the age of 55, he said.

He will now have to wait until the age of 60 to claim his pension.

According to Turner, Thursday's event was attended by several elected officials, including Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, Solicitor General Tasha Mosley, and State Senator-elect Gail Davenport. Representatives of homeowners' associations, and other citizens spoke on Thursday in support of Turner, he said.

Mary Little Bear, a Clayton resident for 31 years, living in Jonesboro's Dixie subdivision, said she met Turner in the early 2000s, when he was a deputy police chief. She said Turner helped address the crime and speeding problems in her neighborhood when her attempts to contact other officers had proved fruitless.

"He was one of the nicest and most considerate people we had ever seen," Little Bear said. "I call him my adopted son. He was just so interested in helping out," she said. "Jeff made a big difference ... I said something about it [the crime] and I saw police cars coming through, where before, I had never seen anyone coming through.

"The [concerns of] citizens were heard with Jeff," Little Bear added. "The police department has not been the same."

Lake City Police Chief David Colwell, who attended Thursday night's fund-raiser, said he disagreed with the way the county handled its dismissal of Turner. Colwell said that since Turner was eliminated, rather than fired, he has been unable to formally file a grievance with the Clayton County Civil Service Board. He also argued that what was once supposed to be a four-week internal investigation of Turner's conduct by the board has yet to be concluded, despite having been initiated in December.

"The thing that bothers me about this whole situation with Jeff is that he's had this cloud of allegations over him for eight months and he has never been able to defend himself," Colwell said. "He's having to seek employment elsewhere, and he still has this cloud hanging over his head, because eight-and-a-half months later, it's still not resolved.

"I feel bad for all the employees put into this situation," he continued. "There are a lot of unanswered questions. The academy was open for 30-some years, and a few months after Jeff was put in there, it was shut down," said Colwell. "Here we are in September, and we have no closure ... I think all Jeff is looking for is closure."

Turner said he was not at liberty to discuss his next legal steps, but said that the "battle is far from being over." He said the support from the community has helped him stay positive.

"I was very happy to see many of the people who I befriended while I was chief," Turner said. "We do have a family and kids in college, so the relief fund has been a godsend," he continued.

"All the while, I have been receiving a lot of phone calls and e-mails. That has been one of the things that have kept me going."