By Katie Fallon
On July 1 of last year, the Sandy Springs Police Department hit the ground running and it has not stopped since then.
Thus was the occasion for a June 28 party in which the department, as well as the public, celebrated its one-year anniversary as the young city reached yet another milestone. For it was on July 1, 2006, that many Fulton County police officers finished their last shift as county personnel, only to start their first shift as law enforcement in Sandy Springs at midnight.
Chief of Police Gene Wilson, who was head of the MARTA Police Department prior to coming to Sandy Springs, said much has changed since “Day 1”, but that more change is yet to come. He said the biggest difference over the last year has been the successful “gelling” of a department comprised of officers who came from departments all over the metro area and who were used to doing things a certain way.
“I think the most important factor in bringing the department together and making it what it is now has been the individual officers,” Wilson said. “I truly can never say enough about the good job they’ve done, the enthusiasm they’ve shown, the morale and the input they’ve given on what they feel we need to do. The biggest difference between July 1 of 2006 and now has been the department has begun to gel. When I say ‘begun’, I mean it’s not completely done.”
The chief said about 40 percent of the police department’s personnel came from the Fulton County Police Department, with the next largest percentages coming from the City of Atlanta, DeKalb County and MARTA police departments.
With the combined decades of experience, Wilson said the original 86 sworn officers that made up the department had to learn to be part of a police department that was starting from scratch.
“Every department is different,” Wilson said. “It was about trying to understand a central philosophy.”
The size of the police department has also improved over the last year, adding approximately 25 officers to its rank. Wilson said if the department remains on 10-hour shifts, his ideal staffing number would be about 130 officers. However, he said he is considering moving staff to 12-hour shifts. If that change materializes, Wilson said his ideal staff size would be between 118 and 120 sworn officers. The addition of staff would have to come from budgetary allowances.
However, Wilson said it’s not just about filling open spots.
“It’s about maintaining the caliber of officers,” he said.
One of those officers who Wilson is proud to have in his ranks is Senior Officer Brenda Plympton.
Whether heading to City Hall to sign an arrest warrant or responding to an accident on one of the many highways that wind through a portion of the city limits, Plympton, like so many of her fellow officers, has noticed small changes since the police department made its debut.
“A street name can come out and I know where it is because I’ve been there at least a million times,” she said. “In the beginning, most of us, except for the [former] Fulton County officers, didn’t really know where we were going. It’s like night and day now.”
A nine-year law enforcement veteran, Plympton has previously worked for the Georgia State University Police Department and the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office. The midtown Atlanta resident, who patrols north of Abernathy Road up to the county line, said she has also seen changes in how the community views its new police department.
“Pretty much everybody has said nothing but wonderful things about us and they’re glad that we’re here,” Plympton said. “At least five times a day, somebody compliments us on how much of a wonderful job we’re doing in comparison.”
Wilson said that in the last year, the support from the community has not only boosted the morale of the department, but also benefited it professionally. In addition to residents bringing by baked goods and meals during the holidays, the Friends of Sandy Springs has also used privately raised funds to outfit the police department with tasers, patrol bicycles and two motorcycle units.
“The community has been outstanding,” he said.
Plympton said while residents no longer wave at passing patrol cars like they used to, the appreciation is still there. She said, however, there is one common misconception that she still hears complaints about.
“There’s been talk about us doing speed traps, but it’s just not true,” she said. “It’s just a regular patrol. Most of the time, our traffic enforcement is complaint-based.”
In fact, Plympton said what will often happen is a resident will make a complaint about drivers speeding or running stop signs in their neighborhood, and then that resident will end up getting pulled over for the same offense.
“It’s hard for us to keep a balance and make everybody happy, but that’s law enforcement in general,” Plympton said.
Wilson said that while improving residents’ opinion of the local police force has been a concern, he has encountered one problem with a severity he was not expecting.
The chief said that the amount of narcotics the department has seen in Sandy Springs was surprising. The traffic, he said, is due in large part to the Atlanta area serving as a major hub for drugs of all kind to be transferred throughout the country.
“Methamphetamines…there’s more of that here than I thought there would be,” Wilson said.
Similarly, Wilson said while gang activity in Sandy Springs has not necessarily experienced a large surge, the nature of the activity is changing.
“I’ve never been one to jump up and down and go nuts over this whole idea of gangs here,” Wilson said. “What I am seeing is almost a tendency of some of the gangs to really begin to formalize what they’re doing instead of it being five or six wannabes. It’s turning into something that’s almost regional.”
But the frequency of one particular incident had stood out from any other almost since the day Sandy Springs police hit the streets.
In any given month, the police department responds to nearly 900 false alarms. Wilson said each of those calls takes a minimum of 15 minutes to handle, which represents a tremendous waste of time and resources. The solution, he said, will eventually be to craft some type of alarm ordinance.
“The first thing we do is get the records management system in so we know exactly what we’re doing with it and where we are,” Wilson said. “Then we come up with an ordinance that’s fair and that’s not punitive, but still has us doing our job as police officers.”
The key to the ordinance will be to decide what frequency of false alarms should be penalized, as well as what party to penalize and how to penalize them.
“I think the third time within a year, someone should end up going to court,” Wilson said.
With any activity, Wilson said the ability to manage and predict patterns will soon become easier. The city is currently in negotiations for a records management system that will completely automate the police department. With the records system in place and the possible formation of specialized task forces, Wilson said the city can get a better handle, for instance, on crimes such as burglary, robbery and vehicle break-ins that often correlate with gang activity.
The chief said, though, that technology is not the cure-all for any city’s criminal woes.
“I believe that you can have all the technology in the world, the best equipment and all the programs, graphs and charts, but it gets down to the individual officer wanting to come to work and do their job,” Wilson said. “I really don’t believe that when it’s all said and done, that there’s really any substitute for that.”
“In the Atlanta region, we’re at a crisis point on attracting qualified people wanting to get into this profession. I’m not sure if it’s the money or the job itself. I don’t know.”
Focusing on continuing to attract quality police officers is still a priority for the chief, but in addition to increasing the number of personnel, the chief said he still has two major goals for the police department. With the one-year anniversary approaching, Wilson said the department will now be able to apply for state certification, which can only be obtained after collecting one year of records. He said he hopes to obtain that certification by the end of the year.
Similarly, nation accreditation can be attempted after being in service for three years.