The Sandy Springs Police Department’s methods of recruiting and training offices aim to prevent abuses like those that killed George Floyd in Minneapolis and sparked nationwide protests, the mayor and SSPD’s second-in-command said in a Dec. 3 panel discussion.

“Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis, anybody who saw those videos had to be moved by what they saw [and], to some degree, horrified,” said Mayor Rusty Paul at the “Policing in Sandy Springs” discussion, adding that he is frequently asked about the possibility of a similar incident there.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

“Could we have civil unrest? Could we have a situation like that?” he said. “The truth is, if it can happen in any community, it can happen in our community.”

But SSPD has said it bans the knee-to-the-neck hold that contributed to Floyd’s death in May and previously reportedly having only one use-of-force complaint in the past two-and-a-half years, which was ruled “unfounded.” Recruiting only quality applicants and regular training — including on use of force, bias-based and bias recognition — are the tools SSPD uses to prevent abuses, said Deputy Chief Keith Zgonc.

“The law surrounding when you can use force [and] when you can’t, proper uses of force, are all things that we train on throughout the year, every year,” Zgonc said.

Paul and Zgnoc were questioned by host Clarissa Sparks of Sandy Springs-based brand strategy company Sparks & Co. in the discussion, which was organized by Leadership Sandy Springs.

In the wake of Floyd’s death, several protests were held in Sandy Springs. Paul attended one of them, praising the protesters for their activism. At another protest, an organizer told the Reporter that her family had bias issues with SSPD several years ago, as well as in the neighboring cities of Dunwoody and Roswell.

To Sparks’ question on how misconduct is handled within SSPD, Zgonc said every formal complaint will be investigated and get a direct response. If sustained misconduct occurs, sometimes training can fix the problem. Other disciplinary actions would be considered.

Sparks said many families feel that they must have what she called “The Talk” with their children on how to respond to officers to avoid abuse. She asked Zgonc how he would advise parents on what tell children about dealing with police officers.

Zgnoc suggested a comparison to schools, saying youths stopped by police “should respond to the police officer the same way that you would want your child to respond to a teacher or a school administrator stopping them in the hallway of their school. Be respectful.”

Many controversial police killings have involved calls for people suffering mental health issues. Last year, an SSPD officer killed a man with a knife who was reportedly suicidal.

Handling calls that deal with mental health issues is a big issue, Zgonc said. He said that police agencies across the country are trying to figure out the best ways to respond.

Sandy Springs Police Deputy Chief Keith Zgonc.

“We’re typically coming in a situation where perhaps things got too violent for the family,” he said. “They just don’t know how to control the situation. Or they just don’t know where else to turn.”

For those types of calls, officers may use tools such as a Taser electric shock weapon, which have a lower risk of killing a suspect than a firearm does.

Zgonc said the city does a more vigorous background check for its applicants than some other area police departments. When a candidate from New Jersey applied, an officer traveled to Newark to interview neighbors and that city’s police department, he said.

Sparks asked if the city had responded to the evidence of bias seen in this year’s controversial killing of Black men, such as Ahmaud Arbery’s killing by vigilantes in Brunswick and Rayshard Brook’s killing by police officers in Atlanta.

Paul said the city responded with its racial dialogue meeting program held through the company Civic Dinners, which drew hundreds of residents to participate in virtual discussions. As one result of the process, Paul is proposing a city “diversity and inclusion commission.”

“We don’t have to go out and build diversity. What we have to focus on is inclusion,” Paul said. “One of the things that came out at the dinners was the fact that a lot of people didn’t feel that they were included in the community today.”

SSPD is looking at pilot projects being conducted across the country that have social workers or other trained professionals going on calls alongside police or responding by themselves. Zgonc said officials are waiting to see how those projects work out before making any proposals.

SSPD has a victim’s advocate working out of the Criminal Investigative division, he said. That official sometimes helps families of people who are arrested or are suspects, he said.

–John Ruch contributed

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.