To begin his remarks about combating crime, Statesboro Councilman John Riggs stepped around to the public microphone and stood facing the other council members, the mayor and the city manager Tuesday morning.
“I speak to you now not as a representative of District 4 but as a lifelong resident and citizen of my beloved city, Statesboro,” Riggs said. “Violent crime, murder, rape, armed robbery, armed home invasions, attempted murder and aggravated assault have again reached yet another apex in our history, and it must be addressed now.”
After adding that as the District 4 council member he would be presenting an initiative, he went back to his seat on the dais to continue. Although he mentioned that this was Election Day, Riggs was not one of the City Council members up for election Tuesday. His current term extends through 2021.
“I believe that our Police Department needs X amount of new officers. I was asked not to give a figure …,” Riggs continued. “I do believe that we do need more officers, we need more patrols, we just need more benevolent, highly trained, highly motivated police officers on the road, and I think over the next five years we could come up with a plan to do that.”
Part of his rationale, he said, was that he knows of three potential students from out of town who will not be going to Georgia Southern University. Their parents, three different families, told him “that the main reason that they would not allow their children to come to school here is because of the level of violent crime,” Riggs said.
“I encourage any and everyone who believes in a safer Statesboro to contact me and let’s begin the dialogue,” he added.
Perception vs. reality
City Manager Charles Penny said he appreciated Riggs’ comments but asked him to be aware that “it’s hard to look at one thing in isolation.” Statesboro, Penny said, has other public safety needs officials should have serious discussions about, including the fire service as well as law enforcement.
“Recognizing that all of it is dovetailing into the budget process, this is a good time to start that conversation, and I look forward to being able to work with Mr. Riggs and the council to address the concerns,” Penny said. “We don’t want people to perceive our city as not being safe, but we also want to be realistic from a financial standpoint.”
Penny, who arrived on the job here July 1 and was previously a city manager in North Carolina, also said he usually has police and fire chiefs deliver annual public safety reports in January.
“So we can see what the stats say, and even in looking at stats, we still have to look at that issue of perception, because in some cases perceptions become reality,” Penny said.
District 5 City Councilman Derek Duke, who was on the ballot facing a challenger Tuesday, said he supported Riggs in his concerns. But in contrast to Riggs’ anecdote, Duke said that his nephew, a senior-level law enforcement officer in the Atlanta area, “has selected our school, Georgia Southern University, to send his beloved daughter to next fall.”
Duke noted a number of positive things happening in Statesboro and also said the city needs to address “perception and reality.”
“We have a real problem, like all of America, with crime, because none is acceptable, we’d like it to be zero,” Duke said. “We want people to do right. But by the same token, what I feel like here, in the biggest little city in America, is that we have a perception problem.”
Mayor Jonathan McCollar said he agreed that “any crime is one crime too many” and knows the city officials all want Statesboro to be as safe as possible. But he referred to “a study” showing Statesboro to be “the second-safest city next to Boone, North Carolina,” among college towns of the Sun Belt conference.
This was actually independent research by Statesboro Chief of Police Mike Broadhead, who after the meeting said the data was from about two years ago.
“I definitely support what Councilman Riggs is saying, but if we’re going to put together a strategic plan, it’s going to have to go back to some things that I’ve mentioned in the past,” McCollar said. “The Police Department is not the end-all, be-all for crime. If we’re not addressing our young people in our community, then crime is going to occur. If we’re not addressing poverty within our community, then crime is going to occur.”
SPD has vacancies
If the mayor and council budgeted for more police officers right now, the Statesboro Police Department might not be able to find more officers to hire. Interviewed after Tuesday’s open session, Chief Broadhead said the department is currently about nine officers short of its budgeted 76 officers. This number was increased from 74 officers with the current budget, which opened July 1.
This has been a perennial problem, going back several years before Broadhead arrived on the job in April 2017. That year, the council and then-Mayor Jan Moore raised the city property tax by 1 mill primarily to fund significant pay increases for all officers below top ranks.
With the higher pay and intentional recruiting, the department had nearly filled all its budgeted officer positions earlier this year.
“But we’re about nine short as we stand today,” Broadhead said Tuesday. “We’ve had a real struggle trying to find good people. We’re getting applications, but we can’t find people who can pass the background check. I think the last seven people in a row we had failed that background check.”
A particular problem has been applicants lying initially about past drug use only to admit it during follow-up polygraph testing, he said.
“We’re not looking for angels, we just want people who can be honest, and if you tell us you’ve done something wrong we want to know what you’ve done since then, what have you done to correct it so that we know you’ve matured and are ready to get to work in this profession,” he said.
‘A little bit picky’
Now is not an easy time in America to recruit people into the policing profession, Broadhead said.
“But we’re not going to lower our standards just to fill our ranks,” he said. “We’re looking for good people that can come and do the job that we want to be done. So we’re being a little bit picky, but I think that’s to everybody’s advantage in the long run.”
Although he does describe Statesboro as a relatively safe community, Broadhead said he appreciated Riggs and other council members’ willingness to look at police staffing over the long term, and with the intent of determining actual needs.
“We’re pretty close, but with future growth, as the city expands, as more housing is built, as apartment complexes go in, we definitely need to take a look at those needs because we can’t continually lag behind on police staffing,” Broadhead said. “But I appreciate the approach of looking long-term and saying, how do we develop a plan.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.