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Learning the lessons of Ferguson
Conyers police look at diversity, better training
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In the wake of the Ferguson-triggered debates on race and policing, the Conyers Police Department must start a program to diversify its majority-white ranks, Chief Gene Wilson said at the city’s annual Winter Retreat on Jan. 24. He also wants the force equipped with gear that has factored into post-Ferguson controversies: body cameras, crowd-control devices and an armored truck.

CPD is 81 percent white in a city that is 55.8 percent black, Wilson said, adding, “I think we’re going to have to work more diligently on that number” with federal diversity mandates likely on the way. He proposed a new police cadet system to serve as an employment pipeline for youths—all local and mostly minority—in the department’s successful Explorers program.

The issues raised by the controversial killing of a black teen by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., last summer are not abstract in Conyers. A New York Times article in September noted uncomfortable similarities between the demographics of Ferguson and Conyers, triggering frank local forums. And those issues are playing out on the streets as well, Wilson revealed, with Conyers’ big difference being good police training.

Wilson described a recent CPD incident that “could have been a tragedy to rival Ferguson.” 

About three months ago, behind a burger place on Flat Shoals Avenue, a white CPD officer confronted a young black man acting suspiciously. The suspect volunteered that he had a gun, but said it was fake, at one point even tugging it out of his waistband by the handle while saying, “See, it’s just a toy.” The officer kept his cool, never fired a shot, and was able to control the suspect and discover it was indeed a toy gun.

Wilson contrasted that to last fall’s infamous Cleveland police killing of a boy playing with a toy gun, involving an inexperienced officer forced out of a previous department for emotional instability. Wilson said that, even though CPD must diversify and needs a bigger force, he will never compromise on the quality of people it hires.

“I’d rather tell you I’m running short [on staff] than put somebody on the street that I’m not sure what they’re going to do,” Wilson said. “Think about the power a police officer has,” he added, noting that anyone in the room could be stopped and potentially killed by an officer.

And CPD is indeed running short on staff. Its 63-member ranks are down six from the currently approved level, and Wilson said more officers are needed, including officers sfor a new Street Crime unit he proposes. But competition for quality officers is fierce, he said, making both hiring and retention a problem.

Wilson will seek pay increases and an education-benefits program as one solution. The proposed cadet program is another, for both staff numbers and diversity. It would offer behind-the-scenes police work jobs to grads of the Explorers program, at a proposed salary of 5 percent less than what rookie cops make—roughly $30,000 with benefits. Wilson wants a pilot program of four cadets.

“I want to create a program that takes [youths] from Explorer to police officer,” Wilson said. “We’re letting these people get away from us.”

Body cameras for officers is another proposal, with an estimated cost of $30,000 to $40,000 that forfeited funds from drug cases might cover. Wilson noted that CPD School Resource Officers have used them for two years in a pilot program with success.

Body cameras have been debated as a possible solution to police brutality claims and situations. Wilson said they are not a “silver bullet,” but would help. City Manager Tony Lucas noted they come with many complex legal issues, including the privacy of children who might be filmed, and expenses and limitations associated with storing video footage.

A BearCat brand armored truck is another of Wilson’s wish-list items. The basic issue is that CPD’s Special Operations unit is currently using an aging SUV that is far from ideal for hauling SWAT-type gear. Wilson said there are disagreements within the department about a suitable replacement, with options including a fairly run-of-the-mill van. 

But Wilson himself prefers the armored truck, which could run $90,000 for a refurbished model. The use of such military-type gear by local police has been hotly controversial, especially with such trucks being displayed at the originally peaceful protests in Ferguson. Wilson said he wants the BearCat for officer safety reasons.

“These idiots out there yodeling like parrots about police militarization, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said passionately.

Wilson said his main concern is drug-related crime involving powerful rifles. He said CPD recently got a tip about a planned home invasion by criminals using AK-47 assault rifles, which ended up not happening. With a touch of drama, he passed around an actual AK-47 round, saying that CPD has “no piece of equipment in our possession that would stop that bullet.” An armored truck would be a different story.

Wilson admitted that rifle-shooting criminals are a rarity in Conyers, and “Y’all may feel the city having a BearCat is something we don’t need.” But if a siege or riot did occur, he noted, the city would be unprepared.

Wilson gave no overall budget for his proposals, which will become more formal in future City Council meetings. In later discussion, city officials said there’s no doubt they would be expensive, probably raising the police budget by more than a third. 

“Let’s see the price tag,” said Councilman Cleveland Stroud. But he and the other councilman added that public safety must be a city priority.