Members of the Georgia Legislature have sponsored a bill that some say oversteps the authority of local governments to set their own laws.
Senate Bill 317 sets in motion the process to abolish county police departments. The bill would allow a county to create a resolution for a voter referendum to shut down its police department.
The legislation would ensure more checks and balances in law enforcement agencies, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. William Ligon Jr., R-Brunswick.
“We spoke with other law enforcement officials and lawyers. We just felt there was a good-faith effort – reason to go forward,” Ligon said.
The bill stems from a grand jury’s ruling, released in September, in response to allegations of cover-up and abuse of power in the Glynn County Police Department. Members of the jury recommended that the county police department be dissolved if officials could not resolve the department’s issues.
Ligon's district, located in Glynn County, includes three forms of law enforcement – the city police, the county police and the sheriff’s department. If the county police department is abolished, then the county's law enforcement authority would be redirected to the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office.
However, Chairman of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners Michael Browning said the law violates Georgia’s home-rule law, which gives local governments the power to adopt laws to manage their own affairs.
“This is a local matter that should be handled at a local level, by those who are elected to conduct the day-to-day business of Glynn County,” Browning said.
Representatives from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia agreed.
Glynn County is one of 14 counties in Georgia that operates under a commission-manager form of government, where the police department has to report to the county manager, who is the chief administrator.
The county sheriff oversees the jail, the security of the courts and administrative work for the county’s law enforcement agencies, but county and city police have authority over their departments.
City police departments report to the city’s chief administrator, who could be the city manager or mayor depending on the government structure.
Browning said the Glynn County Commission was “blinded-sided” by the legislation. He said board members were not invited to the grand jury hearing and had no say in the pending legislation. Browning also believes the grand jury hearing is a result of a squabble between the district attorney and county police chief.
Besides, an external study of the police department was completed, and the commission has rectified all but one of the department's inconsistencies when compared to the industry standards, he said.
But Ligon said that the bill puts the authority back in the hands of the residents, who initially voted for the county police department to be created. County lawmakers and other opponents of the referendum would have the opportunity to discuss their disagreement with the policy, but the final decision would be left with the voters, he said.