Sheriff Jeff Johnson and several members of the Dawson County Board of Commissioners exchanged a series of tense, heated words at a board of commissioners’ work session earlier this month, during a discussion over staffing at the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office.
Johnson appeared before the board of commissioners on Feb. 4, 2021, requesting the board to give him funding to hire as many sworn patrol deputy positions as their budget allowed, to combat increases in crime rates that the county has reportedly seen in recent years.
In his presentation, Johnson reported that in the time since a staffing study was conducted at the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office by the Georgia Sheriff’s Association in 2015, his office has seen nearly a 50 percent increase in the calls for service that they receive.
Drilling down into data collected by the sheriff’s office over the past year, Johnson said that local deputies responded to 38 percent more traffic incidents in 2020 than they did in 2019, as well as 21 percent more domestic violence cases and 23 percent more criminal investigations.
“These are good concrete evidence of our call volume increasing and the need for additional staffing,” Johnson said. “A lot of that is just attributed to where we are, here and now. If we look ahead, we know that there’s more on the horizon.”
The sharp increase in calls for service, according to Johnson, has “significantly” impacted the sheriff’s office’s ability to respond to 911 calls, investigate crimes, serve warrants and secure the Dawson County Detention Center.
Johnson said that since 2017, the board of commissioners has approved 10 new positions, including a 911 supervisor position, school resource officers, a Corporal investigator position and two traffic enforcement H.E.A.T officer positions. But the 10 positions still don’t cover adequately cover the increase in activity the sheriff’s office is experiencing, he said, since many of the new roles were specialized positions that don’t have daily patrol duties or the ability to respond to regular calls for service.
In addition to that, Johnson said that the 10 positions still fall short of what was suggested by the 2015 Georgia Sheriff’s Association Staffing Study, which reportedly recommended that the sheriff’s office needed 136 total positions, 19 positions short of the agency’s current staffing.
“We are unique in that it’s us, it’s the sheriff’s office providing primary law enforcement responsibilities,” Johnson said. “There’s a need here, there’s a need for additional deputies on our streets.”
Ending his presentation, Johnson said that the sheriff’s office was in the process of filling one opening at the Dawson County Detention Center, and asked the board to consider funding as many new positions as they could.
“I’d like to ask you for as many as you can give me,” Johnson said. “We know that we’re 19 short, we understand that’s not reasonable, but we just ask for a good faith effort to get this dialogue going and get some uniformed bodies on patrol.”
Following Johnson’s comments, Commission Chair Billy Thurmond presented data that he had collected from Dawson, Lumpkin and Pickins Counties, which reportedly shows that Dawson County pays more per resident for law enforcement than any county in the surrounding area.
According to Thurmond, the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office has a current budget of $8.4 million, which is $800,000 and $2.6 million higher than the 2021 budgets of the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office and Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office, respectively.
Thurmond said that in addition to that, agencies in both counties have about 25 fewer employees than the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, but cover a larger area. And in terms of spending on law enforcement per citizen, Thurmond said that the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office spends the most per citizen, even when compared to larger more densely populated areas like Forsyth, Cherokee and Hall Counties.
“Lumpkin spends $177.80 per citizen for sheriff’s office, Pickins spends $234.40 per citizen on sheriff’s office,” Thurmond said. “We spend $324.86 per person on our sheriff’s department”
Speaking about how the county has historically supported and funded the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office, Thurmond said that since he was elected in 2017, the sheriff’s office budget has been increased by more than $1.6 million, without factoring in the funding that was allotted to the sheriff’s office by SPLOST VI.
Thurmond said that he, and the board, are open to a conversation about funding additional law enforcement positions but to do that they would need more data on what agencies in other counties are experiencing and the calls for service they receive, to make sure that they can explain to voters how tax dollars are being spent.
“I appreciate the numbers that you provided, and here’s my request; I would like for you to bring back to this board, in the near future … some statistical data matching the data that I just did,” Thurmond said to Johnson. “You’ve got numbers for yourself and your department, and I appreciate that, I’d like to see what … Lumpkin and Pickins are doing as well. I think our taxpayers would like to see that as well.”
Audibly distraught at Thurmond’s comparison of Dawson and its neighbors, Johnson said that Thurmond was “comparing apples to oranges” by asking for data on surrounding counties because in his opinion Dawson County is “totally unique” and can’t be compared to any other county.
“You look at Hall, you look at Forsyth, you look at Lumpkin, you look at Cherokee County, they are chock full of PD’s or schools that have their own police departments. They may have marshals, they may have city marshals that have law enforcement responsibilities,” Johnson said. “It’s easy for you to sit there and throw a number up and compare us, and I’ve said it many, many times, don’t compare us to Lumpkin County. This is a whole different game.”
Johnson also called the data requested by Thurmond, “hoops and hurdles,” expressing his anger and belief that the commissioners don’t understand the needs of the sheriff’s office and the increased pressure being placed on it by the Ga. 400 corridor.
“Go to the south end of 400, which you seem to close your eyes to time and time again, and tell me that there’s no growth there,” Johnson said. “It’s not Lumpkin County we’re comparing to and it’s not Pickens County we’re comparing to. Whether you want to believe it or not and whether you understand it or not, Forsyth County is pushing into Dawson County.”
Rebutting Johnson’s claim that the commissioners put up roadblocks for sheriff’s office funding, Thurmond said that they ask for justification on expenditures from any department head, elected or not, so that they can make the right decisions.
Thurmond also disputed Johnson’s claim that the commissioner’s haven’t supported local law enforcement officers, pointing to the 25 percent increase in the sheriff’s office budget over the last four years and the fact that 65 percent of the upcoming SPLOST VII is slated for public safety projects and equipment.
“So to say that this board has not taken on their primary responsibility of public safety is absolutely not a true statement and I will not stand here and let you say that it is without going back and challenging you on that,” Thurmond said.
After further discussion on this topic, commissioners closed the issue without taking any action on it. An agenda for the commissioner’s voting session on Feb. 18, 2021, shows that the topic of sheriff’s office staffing will be brought back before the board during the new business portion of that meeting.