MORROW — Morrow’s top cop is leaving to return to his roots in Atlanta.
Police Chief Chris Leighty submitted his letter of resignation to Mayor J.B. Burke earlier this week, Burke confirmed Wednesday. Leighty, who is expected to stay with the department until April 25, has been Morrow’s police chief for just over two years.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here,” said Leighty. “The job hasn’t changed and I was very thankful for the opportunity to be police chief in Morrow. My time in Morrow has been very special to me.
“I’m leaving it much better than I found it,” he added. “Crime is down, we have great officers and are widely recognized as a quality department. What more could you ask for?”
Leighty was announced Tuesday as the new director of public safety for the non-profit Midtown Alliance. It’s a return of sorts to the area where Leighty worked before he came to Morrow. Before he came to the city, he spent a year as the commander of the Atlanta Police Department’s midtown and downtown precinct.
Burke said he found out Leighty was planning to take the job Monday during a phone call from the chief.
“He said a search firm had approached him repeatedly about taking a position in the private sector,” said Burke. “They kept going to him because they’d been doing some research and his name kept coming up. This is his decision and my relationship with him, and his relationship with the council, is in good shape.”
Leighty said he will have 50 off-duty Atlanta police officers and a private security team working under him.
“It’s a very cool job,” he said. “I’ll be collaborating with the police department and the private sector to develop strategies to help the police department keep midtown safe. This is an opportunity to do something challenging and fun.”
Leighty is the third city official to quit since last fall. Former City Manager Jeff Eady resigned in October to become Forest Park’s public works director and former City Clerk Evyonne Browning quit in December, citing a desire to move to Florida to be closer to her family.
In retrospect, the hints that Leighty may not stay with the city likely began to surface in early January. That was when he made a cryptic statement during a Jan. 14 city council meeting about not being willing to compromise his integrity amid controversy over the unexpected hiring of new City Manager Ronnie Few.
Leighty said he felt in January that the city council circumvented the hiring process.
“A new council took office and they had 44 applicants for city manager,” he said, which he said was his reaction in January to council’s actions and doesn’t reflect his position as he leaves Morrow. “They circumvented the process. As interim city manager, I made it very clear that my integrity and professional reputation mean the world to me. It’s everything.”
Leighty had nothing negative to say about the city in his resignation letter, and he praised city leaders.
It was during his time as interim city manager that Leighty thought it might be time to weigh other options.
“There was uncertainty in January with the new council about what might happen,” he said. “I figured there was no harm in talking to the consulting group looking to fill the position.”
Leighty’s departure means the city council will have to start its second police chief search in 28 months. He came into the position in March 2012 months after former Chief Jeff Baker quit amid a scandal.
Baker’s own officers called Clayton County police to arrest him after he was found passed out and drunk in his city vehicle at a Morrow intersection in November 2011. After being awakened, he gave one of his officers a thumbs up and drove to the department’s headquarters.
Baker pleaded guilty to one count of DUI in February 2012. Capt. Greg Tatroe served as Morrow’s interim police chief between Baker and Leighty.
On the night he was sworn in two years ago, Leighty said it had been a long-time goal of his to be the chief of a small-town police department.
“The City of Morrow has this unique aspect in that it’s a small town, and it has a lot of big-city amenities,” Leighty told Clayton News Daily on March 27, 2012.
Given that goal, it’s puzzling that Leighty would decide to trade in the small town atmosphere for a return to the big city after two years.
But the chief said returning to midtown Atlanta is akin to going home again.
“This was not an easy decision by any means,” he said. “But I’m going back to a lot of people I already know. This is an absolute phenomenal position. It’s a big job. If I’d been offered a job as police chief in Stockbridge, I’d say no, but this is a huge responsibility.”
Leighty has been popular among Morrow leaders and residents since he became chief and was tapped to serve as interim city manager last November after Eady resigned.
“His decision is creating a vacancy that will be hard to fill,” said Burke.
Leighty said leaving Morrow will be hard.
“This is a great opportunity but I’m leaving a great opportunity,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with being police chief in Morrow. It’s a cool town. It’s not easy for me to leave. The citizens have been phenomenal.”
City Councilman Larry Ferguson said Leighty will be missed.
“Chief Leighty set an outstanding leadership example,” said Ferguson. “He added stability to the police department during challenging times … His leadership and integrity will be missed. The chief trained his staff well and these men and women will continue to be a great department.”
Burke said he is not sure how a search will be conducted to replace Leighty because he has not had a chance to discuss it with the city council.
“To my knowledge, there have been absolutely no discussions concerning what we’re going to do because, I feel, no one has had a chance to digest this news,” said Burke.
Ferguson said he’d like to see a new chief chosen from within the department’s ranks.
Most of Leighty’s 25-year law enforcement career was in Atlanta, with Morrow being the only other department for whom he’s worked. He is set to return to the city April 28 in his new position, according to a news release from the Midtown Alliance.
“Chris Leighty is a seasoned law enforcement professional with an impeccable reputation,” said Midtown Alliance President Kevin Green in the statement. “He knows Midtown, brings solid leadership capabilities, and understands the importance of strong partnerships. We are delighted to welcome Chris to the team.”