Patrol officers hired to serve
the Dawson County citizens served up a little more than they were trained to do
Wednesday morning when they entered the Dawson County Middle School and struck
up a game of badminton, leaving the county without any patrol officers on the
Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson said Dec. 12 that he had received a report of inappropriate behavior by patrol officers who were on duty early that morning.
Johnson said that all five members of the night patrol shift met at Dawson County Middle School at approximately 2 a.m. Dec. 12 to conduct building clearing exercises, and that before conducting the training, officers began to play badminton in the gym while waiting for all of the officers to arrive.
He said that when the final officer arrived, the group did not go directly to the drill, but continued playing. The game lasted approximately 35 minutes, Johnson said.
The officers are issued individual key cards to access Dawson County Schools buildings for security reasons.
Johnson said that Patrol Commander Capt. Matt Hester has conducted an interview with each of the officers involved and that disciplinary action is forthcoming.
He has not released the names of the officers involved, but said the shift members ranged from the shift supervisor to a new hire, all who have different levels of accountability.
Johnson said he did not know if Capt. Hester was aware the officers were planning the alleged training.
“They were assigned the night shift, but there is potential for them to be called out during the day,” Johnson said. “Hester does encourage them to learn the layout of the schools.”
The issue lies in the fact that the entire shift was there, Johnson said, leaving the county without any officers on the road.
“(Patrol officers) will often engage in smaller, lower scale training like traffic stops on slow nights, especially with new recruits and things of that nature,” Johnson said. “It’s encouraged as long as it doesn’t interfere with their duties.”
An open records request has been filed to the Dawson County School System requesting video of the incident.
With a standard of up to five patrol officers on shift at a time, the sheriff’s office could be down most if not all of a shift after the incident is addressed.
“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. “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.”
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.
This story will be updated.