Region prepares for police academy's closure

With the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy scheduled to close by the end of this month, 165 law enforcement agencies in 18 Georgia counties will have to look elsewhere to train their officers. In addition, 25 citizens paying out of their own pockets to become officers, will have their training abruptly ended.

A recent decision of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners has resulted in the academy shutting down by Aug. 1, less than a year after former Clayton County Police Chief Jeff Turner was reassigned to be the academy's director.

While lauded by some members of the board as a cost-saving measure, others have called it part of a scheme to embarrass, discredit, and ultimately, fire Turner, with the academy merely being collateral damage.

The immediate impact

With the closure of the police training facility, the county will see an immediate savings of $250,000, which represents the cost of annual salaries for Turner, three lieutenants, one captain, and a secretary. While three new training officer positions have been recently added to the Clayton County Police Department, all officers assigned to the academy, including Turner, will be out of a job, as of Aug. 1, Turner said.

In fiscal year 2009, the academy generated a little more than $100,000 through hosting special training classes and seminars, according to Turner. He said the county will those dollars, and local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies may face even greater inconvenience.

"The state reimburses us for training the officers we train," he said. "Pre-service candidates, those candidates who are not sponsored by a law-enforcement agency, had to pay their own way through. We, the county, got to keep all that money. The savings they are going to save from closing the academy are not significant.

"We train officers from roughly 165 agencies, in 18 counties ... sheriff's offices, police departments, federal agencies," Turner said. "It definitely has a regional impact from the standpoint that so many agencies have utilized the police academy over the past 30 years. It's always closer than going to Forsyth, (Ga.) for training."

There are 25 pre-service candidates in night courses at the academy, according to Turner. He said each pays $3,100 out of pocket for tuition, which doesn't include the cost of books, boots, gear, and EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operation Course) training. With only two months left in a six-month program, all of the candidates will have to pick up somewhere else, he said.

"They were all supposed to graduate in November, but we are going to disband, and close their class next week," Turner said. "We had three to drop out this week. They didn't want to keep going, if they couldn't finish. Should they decide to go to another academy, they can pick up where they left off. The only bad thing is that we were one of the only police academies doing night classes. A lot them work for a living ... their wait to be a police officer may be for a long time."

Turner said the night class candidates will likely receive a prorated refund of their tuition.

The impact on other agencies

Dale Mann, the director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC), in Forsyth, said the police academy trained 129 recruits for local law enforcement agencies, 23 pre-service candidates, and 129 basic jailers, during fiscal year 2010.

Mann said the GPSTC contracted the county to run the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Center. He said state budget cuts trimmed funding for the academy, from $300,000, to $242,000. "So the local government was putting in a lot of the money to run the academy," the GPSTC director said.

However, with the closure of the Clayton police academy, Mann said the GPSTC "had to scramble" to help local law enforcement agencies that relied on the Clayton County academy find new training homes.

"One of the first calls I got was from Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington, who was like, ‘What do we do?'" Mann said. "We're trying to do good customer service, and help the law enforcement agencies, who relied on that academy, make a seamless transition to other locations."

Mann said the GPSTC has absorbed 15 candidates who were scheduled to start training in Clayton this month. He said other academies will have to step up in the absence of Clayton County's academy. "We're going to be expanding the number of basic training classes we offer to handle the load," Mann said.

Carroll County Sheriff's Office spokesman, Chief Deputy Brad Robinson, said three recruits to his department will be sent to the North Central Georgia Law Enforcement Academy, in Austell, in September. Robinson said the loss of Clayton's academy hurts from the standpoint of quality.

"The officers that we sent there, I felt they were certainly ready for duty," he said. "In my opinion, that was a very good academy. I hated to hear they were closing it."

City of Decatur Deputy Police Chief Keith Lee said any recruits his department gets in the future would possibly be sent to either, the North Central Georgia Law Enforcement Academy, or the GPSTC's Regional Police Academy in Athens. He predicted the closure of Clayton's academy will impact public safety throughout metro Atlanta, by delaying the training of officers and sheriff's deputies.

"There's going to be limited spots available, which means it will take longer to get recruits trained," Lee said. "When it takes longer to get recruits trained, it means you have to go longer without them out patrolling the streets."

City of Conyers Police Chief Gene Wilson said the department has been sending it's officers to train in Clayton for the past decade. He said it will cost his department more money to send recruits to a more-distant academy, because of gas re-imbursements, and possible overnight hotel stays, so he may have to seek other options to obtain new officers. "What we may do is either look at police officers who have prior experience in law enforcement, in this state, or individuals who attended an academy as a pre-service candidate," he said.

The legal ramifications

In December, Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas asked Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson to conduct a criminal investigation into Turner's use of police department surveillance equipment. DeKalb County District Attorney Gwen Keyes Fleming agreed to take the case after Graham recused herself.

In March, Fleming closed her investigation, finding no criminal wrongdoing on the part of Turner.

On Tuesday, Turner's attorney, Bill Atkins, sent a memo to Board of Commissioners Chairman Eldrin Bell, asking him to exercise his "authority as an elected public official to request that the chief judge of the superior court impanel a special grand jury" to investigate whether "one, or more members of the Clayton BOC and/or the Chief of Staff, participated in a scheme to deprive Mr. Turner of his rights under the Civil Service Act, by transferring him to the CCPA [police academy] and thereafter voting to disband the CCPA."

"It [the police academy] essentially pays for itself," Atkins said. "Yet this board is prepared to close this facility just so they can get rid of Jeff Turner. They are not getting rid of this department. They are just putting it back where it was the last time. It's subterfuge. They are doing this because they don't want him to have a Civil Service hearing ... if he had one, he would win."

On Monday, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell addressed the academy's closure during an interview on the Lorraine Jacques-White morning show, on local AM talk radio station, 1380 WAOK.

Bell said he believed the academy was closed solely because some county commissioners wanted to fire Turner. "I want the people of Clayton County to know that we did not have to close that police academy — certainly not now," Bell said, during the radio interview. "We placed former Chief Turner there, and I disagreed with that. It appears that some members of our board wanted to fire him, but didn't want to do it direct.

"So, what you do is you put the academy there, and put him in charge of the academy, and then eliminate the academy, and there's nothing he can do ... It was just an end run to get rid of him."

Bell, who voted against Turner's transfer to the police academy, backed down from those comments on Friday, saying the board's actions "leaves the appearance" of subterfuge, "something the board should not want." While he said he would not fulfill Atkins' request for a grand jury investigation, he said he supports Turner getting a Civil Service hearing.

"My response [to Atkins] was that he didn't present me with any new evidence that would cause me to want to open up an investigation," Bell said. "On the advice of counsel, we are not going to do that." "[However,] we need to be totally transparent about what we are doing.

"After they [the board] leveled about 12 charges against him [Turner], then they transferred him, they had an internal investigation," Bell continued. "I have still not gotten the results of that investigation. Upon getting that, we should give him a hearing, either to clear his name, or to level actions against him, in accordance with Civil Service rules. I don't want the appearance out there that we closed the academy to get Jeff Turner. We should open a hearing and let the chips fall where they may."

Cohilas could not be reached on Friday to comment on the status of the county's internal investigation against Turner.