When Sheila Rogers was sworn in Tuesday as the interim police chief of the new city of South Fulton, she got a standing ovation. She also got a heap of challenges, from ensuring the police department is ready to take over service Monday, to making sure there are enough officers available to protect the community.
The new city’s police department is hiring Fulton County officers at the same rank and salary they had at their former jobs. But unlike the fire department, which transitioned to South Fulton a month ago, the county is keeping some officers — about 30 — to patrol the Fulton Industrial Boulevard area, the last unincorporated part of the county.
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It’s created some frustrations during the transition. Residents are concerned about the number of officers who will be available on day one, considering that some will stay with the county. Bill Edwards, the South Fulton mayor, wants the county to hand over a command vehicle that was purchased with Homeland Security grant money, and that he contends would be put to better use in the city. The county intends to keep it.
“They just can’t have all the best equipment,” Edwards said. “That’s just inequitable.”
Edwards, in complaining about negotiations with the county, accused leaders of starting their own police department when the city could provide the service for them — much as they are for fire service in the industrial district. He said the county is “trying to take away” officers when the city needs them.
That’s just not true, Fulton County Chief Operating Officer Todd Long said. After all, the county’s police department already exists, and has for decades. And the county made no promises to the new city about who would patrol the unincorporated area.
A $3,000 retention bonus offered to county officers was intended to reward people who were willing to stay with Fulton — after all, Long said, if legislation to dissolve the unincorporated area and place it in South Fulton is approved, the officers might no longer have jobs at this time next year.
“It’s a risk,” Long said. “You’ve got to pay people for a risk.”
On top of the arguments, there’s the simple matter of time. Rogers started working toward the new department weeks before her swearing-in, but only after members of city council rejected Edwards’ first pick for police chief, in late January.
“We felt like they needed a police chief the last several months,” Long said. “They did try.”
John McDonough, the Sandy Springs city manager, said the police chief and top staff were among the first people that city brought on board when it was first incorporated, in late 2005. He said it was very important to have that leadership, so the structure could be created for an effective department.
“We felt we needed at least several months in advance,” he said. “For us, it was very important.”
Rogers, who retired from Fulton County before moving to the city, said her March 5 start created difficulties, but that a lot of the original work to build the department had started before she got there. South Fulton, a city of about 100,000 people, stretches from Chattahoochee Hills to south of Atlanta.
“It’s been a challenge, but it’s been an acceptable challenge,” she said. “We’ll be ready.”
The city has 161 positions on the police force; as of press time Thursday, it was not clear how many of those positions would be filled. But Rogers said there were enough people to staff all of the city’s patrol divisions. Long estimated about 90 Fulton County officers would move to the city.
Darryl Halbert, Fulton County’s interim police chief, said the county may continue to assist the city after Monday, saying Fulton wants to do “everything we can” to make sure the department is up and running.
Without the responsibility for South Fulton, Halbert said he has the opportunity to focus on more regional responsibilities. The county’s police jurisdiction is small, but it still has the Homeland Security grant, and can provide assistance in SWAT or other situations, Halbert said. He also has the opportunity to focus on countywide youth initiatives, to reduce crime, and investigating cold cases. The county’s department will also expand police presence and county-owned buildings.
But at first, the focus will be on South Fulton and Rogers, as she works to ease the concerns of residents who say they are tired of crimes like car break-ins and thefts that are often perpetrated by teens.
“We had three weeks,” Rogers said of her appointment. “Time is of the essence.”
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