Five Dawson County Sheriff’s Office patrol officers were reprimanded last week after video surveillance from the local middle school showed all of the officers engaged in a late night game of badminton in the school gym, leaving no officers on the streets.
The game occupied two of the officers for a little over an hour as the group waited for everyone to arrive at the school at Hwy. 9 and Dawson Forest Road for training, and lasted approximately 35 minutes after the fifth and final officer arrived.
Sheriff Jeff Johnson said Monday that shift supervisor Sgt. Donna Bennett was demoted from her probationary status as sergeant to a corporal position after the incident.
Cpl. Casey Honea, Cpl. Chad Mobley, Deputy Richard Martin and Deputy Cory Gearin each received a disciplinary notice and their pay is being docked for the time spent playing badminton.
Surveillance video shows two patrol officers entering the gym around 1:45 a.m. Dec. 12 and striking up a game at 1:54 a.m. The other three officers slowly filter in over the course of an hour and join in the game.
The game lasted until 3:03 a.m. when the officers walk off screen, presumably to put their rackets away. The group can be seen walking out of the gym at 3:08 a.m. after a brief huddle, and at 3:25 a.m. one of the officers re-enters the gym to retrieve a jacket that had been left.
Johnson said Dec. 12 that he had received a report of inappropriate behavior by patrol officers who were on duty early that morning, and that the patrol shift met at the school to conduct building clearing exercises.
Though Johnson could provide no documentation of a planned training, other video surveillance from the rest of the school shows the officers conducting a building clearing training upon leaving the gym at 3:09 a.m.
Though the footage is dark, it shows what appears to be training activity through around 3:30 a.m. There is no more visible activity until the officers appear to leave the school around 4:30 a.m.
Johnson acknowledged that the badminton game was inappropriate behavior for officers on duty, but has not addressed the more serious nature of all five of Dawson County’s on duty patrol officers being pulled from their assigned zones at the same time.
Patrol officers are assigned to specific zones throughout the county, which they can leave to assist other officers when calls come in. The expectation, however, is that there will always be at least one patrol officer covering each zone in the county.
“As your sheriff, I apologize to our community for this occurrence. We strive to build trust within our community and unfortunately incidents such as this serve to undermine that trust,” Johnson said Dec. 12. “I am very disappointed in this behavior as I know it is not indicative of our staff as a whole. I want to reassure our community that we truly have exceptional professionals serving our county.”
Officers are able to access school buildings at any time with electronic key cards in case of emergency. Johnson said Dec. 13 that officers are encouraged to learn the layout of the schools, even if they are assigned the night shift.
Superintendent Damon Gibbs said Thursday he had no comment on the incident.
The incident is especially unfortunate given Johnson’s past position that he was not allocated enough funds by the Dawson County Board of Commissioners in his 2018 budget to increase patrol presence on the streets.
Johnson sued the board in September 2017. His concern was that he did not have enough staff to handle the workload demanded, and he cited the growth in the Ga. 400 corridor, stating the office had seen a 28 percent increase in calls for service since the beginning of 2017.
He sued for $700,000 in addition to his $8.4 million budget, mainly in requests for more staff including patrol positions. In March a judge ruled in favor of the commission, stating there had been no abuse of discretion when the board set Johnson’s budget.
Johnson had also ended the 2017 budget cycle with around $400,000 left that he had not spent.
Johnson took a different approach during the 2019 budget process this year, telling the board he could work within the recommended numbers provided by the county finance department, which are based on historic trends in spending.
Commissioners allocated two additional patrol positions to the sheriff’s office for 2019 in the budget passed in November.
They also approved two additional school resource officer positions, whose salaries are paid 50 percent by the board of education and 50 percent by the county, and provided funding for traffic enforcement before and after school to help facilitate parent pickup and drop-off in April.