COVINGTON, Ga. — Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, local law enforcement agencies have faced several challenges, and at the Covington Police Department those challenges have led to low morale.
During a recent meeting, Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton told the mayor and council that things had been getting better thanks to work of both the department and the council.
Cotton said he’d been conducting one-on-one interviews with employees throughout his department and addressed several topics with his staff — from the hiring and training process within the department to the budgeting process at the hands of the city council.
“One thing, as an example we came across, is taking a look at field training program where we train new officers when we bring them in,” Cotton said. “So we put together a group and they’ve been working on that.”
Cotton said his department had also been working toward instituting a diversity training program to help better educate officers on the different races, genders and cultures represented across Covington and Newton County.
“Maybe do some fun things to help us learn a little bit about the people we serve here in the community,” Cotton said during the Nov. 16 meeting.
Cotton said the department has struggled in trying to figure out the “new normal” that came with COVID-19, but it’s made a lot of progress in recent months.
“We’ve kind of figured out that we’ve had to work through the COVID anyway, so we just got to keep on working through the COVID,” he said. “We’ve got to find the new normal right now until there’s a vaccine out there.”
But despite the progress being made within the department, members of the council have witnessed why keeping the morale up among officers has been difficult.
When the virus first hit Newton County in April, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the Covington, Oxford and Porterdale police departments agreed to limit arrests in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep the virus out of the county’s jail. Officers have done this by only writing citations and taking warrants for nonviolent offenses that will be addressed once the jail is fully operational.
Though the agencies’ efforts have led to a COVID-free jail, it’s also led to a concerning level of disrespect from nonviolent offenders.
Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett recalled a specific incident that occurred a few weeks ago involving a trio of skateboarders.
“(Recently) some officers had to come to town to deal with some problems we were having with guys on skateboards,” she said. “I cannot tell you how appreciative I was of how well they (the officers) held their composure. I have never, in my entire life, seen people be as ugly to anyone as I saw these three be rude to these officers. Everything from going to Facebook Live, to ugly hand gestures, to calling the names, to — it was at noon on a Tuesday. So I cannot imagine what they are facing on a Friday night at midnight. I don’t know what else we can do to help y’all.
“I’m still deeply concerned that we don’t have the jail, because they all three should have been locked up immediately,” she added. “The only thing they did not do to our officers was put their hands on them. That’s the only thing they did not do. And when it was all said and done, they got on their skateboards and rode off into the middle of town and there was nothing we could do because we cannot lock people up. I just have never seen a lack of (respect of) authority by anyone ever in my entire life, and it went on and on and on for probably 30 minutes. And all I could think about was the resources that were being wasted when they should’ve been tossed into the back of a patrol car and taken to jail.
“I really want us to look into what options we have as far as other counties if we can’t work within our own county. We’ve got to do something because evidently the word has gotten out, and I fear for your safety, because I don’t want anyone to hesitate and we have something tragic happen … And when we don’t have any recourse as to what to do with them, we’re going to see that amp up.”
Cotton also remembered the incident and said he had to deal with a similar situation on that same day.
“That was actually Election Day when we were out and about and that occurred,” Cotton said. “About nine hours later I was out on the Square to see what happened and I came across some more skateboarders right in front of Lee’s Fashions. I told them to get out of there, and as I was walking away from them, I saw two more down the street. I went over and got them a little bit and one of them gave me a little bit of what the officers heard. We called his mother, and he was just as rude to his mother as he was to us. That’s what we’re dealing with out here in the community. But he was 15, and I couldn’t have snatched him up and taken him to jail because he was a juvenile.”
He assured Baggett and the council that officers would soon be able to do more than write citations and issue warrants. The chief said he had spoken with Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown about the situation. He said Sheriff’s Office was working to implement a rapid testing process for COVID-19, and if the offender will be put in jail if he or she tests negative.
“He (Brown) asked if we’ll pay for our testing,” Cotton said, “and I said absolutely. It’s about $30 a test.”
Councilman Kenneth Morgan said he was also concerned with the lack of respect being shown toward local law enforcement.
“I want to encourage all of our citizens inside of the city to be respectful,” Morgan said. “At points, we give law enforcement officers a hard time, but you’ve got to realize that everybody’s human. Nobody wants to be mistreated. And the same way we don’t want perpetrators to be mistreated, we shouldn’t mistreat our law enforcement officers, too. They are human. They have feelings like everybody else and at the end of the day, everybody should be respected.
“So I just want to go on record to let the chief know that I appreciate what he does, what law enforcement in this community do — not only in this community, every community,” he continued. “I just want to encourage people that we’re all living in some critical times and everybody’s trying to stay safe and the last thing that we need to do is to escalate any type of situation that we’re faced with.
“From me personally, and as a council person, Stacey, whatever we can do to help you and your officers out, we’re willing to do whatever we have to do,” Morgan added. “Because at the end of the day, I realize there are organizations out there, but all lives matter to me.”
Horton reiterated Morgan’s sentiments of appreciation for the Covington police and as well as other first responders.
“For the Public Safety Department … when trouble hits, they have to go to it, not away from it. And so as everybody has echoed here tonight, I appreciate what we have in Covington, Georgia.”
Councilwoman Susie Keck said despite the recent antics of some skateboarders, there were also some “really nice guys” that skateboard as well. She urged the council to revisit the idea of constructing a skate park that was brought up a few years ago. Keck said she know several young people, including her grandson, who often ride skateboards and scooters.