Chief suspension about politics

LAWRENCEVILLE - The fallout from the contentious primary battle for chairman between Charles Bannister and Lorraine Green continued this week, when Police Chief Charles Walters began serving a 10-day suspension.

Walters will miss out on two weeks of his $147,381 salary because of statements he made critical of Green, currently a commissioner, in a personnel meeting July 31.

"Your comments have adversely affected the organization and reflect badly on the Police Department as well as the County Administrator's Office," County Administrator Jock Connell wrote in a memo advising Walters of the suspension. Connell notes that any future infractions could result in further disciplinary action, including termination.

Walters, who declined comment Wednesday, was directed to write an apology letter to each member of the Board of Commissioners, including Green, who lost a close primary runoff for chairman Aug. 5.

In the letter Walters wrote to Bannister, he said he "took the opportunity to address inaccurate information" in the personnel meeting.

"This information has caused serious damage to the morale among various operational units throughout the agency," Walters wrote, saying he presented a "true state of crime" in the suburban county. "I apologize for using this forum to convey that information in such a blunt manner and any problems that it caused. My only motivation was the defense of the reputation of the Police Department."

Walters does not specify what information was considered inaccurate, although Connell's memo said it revolved around a Web site. Green said she did not know what information the chief was referencing.

Throughout his 2008 campaign, Bannister continuously extolled the virtues of the county's 700-plus member police force.

On the heels of the final debate between Bannister and Green before the Aug. 5 runoff, the police department issued a press release highlighting decreases in almost all serious crime categories since 2007. The release - issued the same day as the personnel meeting - backed Bannister's claims, albeit indirectly, that current policing efforts are working.

"This shows that progress can be made when citizens work together with (police)," Walters said in that release.

The department issued a similar release the next day, this time calling attention to gains in drug seizures and gang-related arrests.

Crime was a chief issue in the election, and both the Green and Bannister campaigns had support from law enforcement officials.

Sheriff Butch Conway openly campaigned for Green, leading to ethics complaints when members of his staff and equipment appeared in a campaign ad.

Green also had endorsements from the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and the Fraternal Order of Police, while Bannister had the endorsement of District Attorney Danny Porter, who even investigated Conway for one campaign move. Conway was later cleared of wrongdoing.

But unlike Walters, Porter and Conway are independently elected officials free to engage in politics. As the appointed chief of police, Walters created a policy of keeping his department out of politics. In fact, Walters barred the local IBPO chapter from using the Gwinnett Police logo on T-shirts because of concern of a misconception that his department was involved in politics, he said.

Walters, who will return to work Sept. 2, was appointed chief in September 2003, following the retirement of Chief William Dean. He has served nearly 30 years on the force, beginning as a patrolman and climbing to Uniform Division Commander before being named chief. He is married with four children.

Speaking in 2003 to his police-work philosophy, Walters said, "When the opportunity arises, do the right thing for the right reasons."

Cpl. Illana Spellman, the department's spokeswoman, deferred all questions Wednesday to Connell.

"I cannot respond to any inquiries regarding the chief's suspension," she said.

Green said Connell took "appropriate action" but declined to discuss the situation further.