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County, cities at odds over service delivery
Policing to be talks' hot topic

LAWRENCEVILLE - When city and county officials reconvene for court-appointed mediation Monday, one topic will weigh heavily on their minds: the presence of county police in local cities.

The issue, which has been a barrier in negotiations to a state-mandated service delivery strategy even before the former strategy expired at the end of February, has become a bigger hot potato since the last failed attempt at mediation.

Since then, county officials said they would expand the county police department to patrol cities, proposing a tax increase to fund more officers.

While the tax increase is now off the table, Chairman Charles Bannister has said he is still interested in the police expansion.

While he said the county cannot force cities to close their own police departments, Lilburn resident Heather Koffman, who heads her community's neighborhood watch, said the proposal creates a duplication of services.

"This is an attempt to coerce us to dismantle our city police forces," she said during a public meeting on the proposed tax increase. "It shows utter contempt for the will of the people."

Dave Williams, the mayor of Suwanee, a city with 36 sworn officers patrolling its streets, said local forces are doing a good job, and an expansion of the county department would only create issues such as turf wars and dispatch confusion.

Even in the current arrangement, his local officers, he said, have narrowly avoided some "dangerous situations" with county special investigations occuring in the city without notification.

Gwinnett Police Chief Charles Walters declined to comment or answer questions about the proposal, saying he would follow the policy determined by county commissioners.

Nine cities have their own police departments - Auburn, Braselton, Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Loganville, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee. The city councils of Berkeley Lake, Grayson and Sugar Hill have hired private security firms to patrol their streets.

While a look at violent crime incidents based on population does not show cities with police forces any safer than people in unincorporated Gwinnett, Williams said cities often act as urban cores with higher populations during the day and higher-than-average property values.

In his own city, the police force has been recognized internationally for its focus on community policing. And he said response times are lower in many cities because of the concentration of officers.

"It's a solution that is seeking a problem. The current law enforcement arrangement works great," he said. "It boggles the mind (county officials) would throw tens of millions of dollars at a situation that isn't needed or wanted."

Funding is a big part of the debate, with county leaders contending all residents need to pay for the county police, since cities with local forces still use the county's helicopter unit, animal control, crime-scene unit and at times the SWAT team and detectives.

"We are planning for the future and eliminating some of the criminal elements out of here," Bannister said when he proposed the expansion. "I think we deserve to give (citizens) the best possible police, public safety protection we can moving forward."

The third round of mediation will begin Monday morning at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

SideBar: Sugar Hill coverage still lacking

SUGAR HILL - The news could have been a blessing to Gary Pirkle.

Gwinnett officials want to spread the county police force into cities, something the Sugar Hill mayor has sought for years.

But the message was mostly aimed at cities that already have police forces, and Pirkle said he knows the city's low crime rate will mean it would continue to be overlooked, even if the police force grows.

"We felt particularly pained about (a proposed tax increase to hire more officers) because we didn't feel like we were getting what we paid for," Pirkle said. "(The police chief said) we don't have enough crime for them to be here, but we are seeing crime we've never seen before. We think that can be deterred by more of a police presence."

In the past, Gwinnett's fourth-largest city has paid the county to have off-duty police officers do extra patrols, on top of the taxes residents already pay.

But Pirkle said officials tried to find a different solution when the price kept going up and the city still wasn't allowed to schedule when and where the cops patrol. In the end, the mayor said, the officers could still be called away from the city if the county force needed them to cover another situation.

So the city tried to negotiate a deal with the sheriff's department. Commissioners balked at the idea, causing Pirkle to turn to a private security firm. The security guards aren't first-responders, Pirkle said, but at least they patrol the city and look out for suspicious activity.

When mayors of cities with police forces began talking to county officials about a possible break in taxes to avoid double taxation for residents, Pirkle was intrigued.

After residents in Sugar Hill voted against raising taxes to support a police department, he thought the situation could change if county taxes decreased by a mill or two in places with a city police force. Would people be willing to raise city taxes to have a local force if it meant a break in county taxes?

But the idea never got off the ground.

Instead of a tax break, county leaders proposed a higher millage rate for people who live in cities, explaining that people who live in unincorporated Gwinnett already pay extra taxes in the form of insurance and business taxes.

Plus, after talks with city leaders over a state-mandated service delivery strategy stalled, county officials said they would simply begin patrols in cities - whether there was a police department there or not - to avoid accusations that people aren't getting the service they paid for.

In the last few years, Pirkle said crime has creeped into his community. The police respond to incidents, including a major drug raid in one neighborhood, but he said a city force may have more time and inclination to investigate smaller crimes.

Just over a week ago, a drunk driver reportedly ran into a newly constructed fence around the city cemetery. Pirkle said he would have liked for the culprit to pay the city restitution for the crime, but was told the county police force would not investigate further.

"If you have to deal with a drug crime, that takes a precedent over property crimes," he said. "Unfortunately, somebody does something like that and we were left to pay for it."