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Cumming reprimands officers over training discrepancy

POSTED: June 12, 2014 11:58 p.m.

CUMMING — Several Cumming police officers have been reprimanded — but none fired — for taking credit for training hours they didn’t complete, officials said.

According to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, they were among at least 500 officers and sheriff’s deputies statewide suspected of doing so.

But the actual number may be tough to determine because it requires chiefs and sheriffs to review the council’s online records for each of the 15,000 officers who did online testing during the 11 months before a glitch in the testing system was caught.

The Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department reported they looked into the issue but had no discrepancies.

The problem in Cumming was discovered in February when the department reported finding discrepancies in 15 officers’ online training records.

“We were the first agency to come forward to say we saw a discrepancy,” said Sgt. Bryan Zimbardi with Cumming police.

The discrepancy was allowed through a new program designed by the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, which automatically credited officers with completing the course when they clicked submit, regardless of whether they actually went through the program.

It was Zimbardi who detected the discrepancy when he saw officers getting credit for hours of training while the system showed they were logged on for much less time — in some cases, mere minutes.

Zimbardi submitted the information to Police Chief Casey Tatum, who took immediate corrective measures.

“Everybody that was involved in it had their training hours stripped,” Zimbardi said.

In addition, officers were suspended on an hour-for-hour basis, meaning if they incorrectly got credit for five hours, they also got five hours of suspension.

Officers are required to complete 20 hours of training annually, though most of Cumming’s 15 officers finish as many as 70 or 80 hours each year.

Under the program, they could take the training courses either at home or at work, and on their own time or while on the clock. But the abuse of the system won’t be a problem going forward.

“We have since discontinued online training in our agency,” Zimbardi said. “We’re going to be conducting all of those internally as an in-service class and not through the online training system.”

Since the problem was discovered, other officers across the state have lost training hours while others have been dismissed.

An Oconee County sheriff’s deputy was fired a few weeks ago because he said he had completed 20 hours of online training, but computer records show he spent eight minutes online.

The effects could be long-lasting if an implicated officer or deputy has to testify in court or is involved in a shooting. A defense attorney would likely want to make sure jurors knew the officer had been accused of unethical behavior or lying.

“That’s pretty embarrassing,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Our goal is for an officer to be who they say they are when they sit in the witness stand.

“If an officer would compromise something like this, it’s natural for someone to ask, ‘What else would they compromise?’ Ethics and integrity in our work is paramount.”

The Public Safety Training Center designed the programs and said some problems could be chalked up to a “learning curve” on the custom-made system.

The center said glitches in the online program either didn’t accurately record time spent in training or allowed officers to get credit without actually completing training.

“Since we lost the ability to track students for 11 months, we cannot say with certainty that all students attended 100 percent of the presentation,” according to a training center email. “However, I am confident that not all students were attempting to circumvent presentations for credit.”

The new online training was offered at a one-time cost of $1,000 as a way to save money, the training center email said. The previous program had cost the state $50,000 a year.

“Word gets around. We know it went on for several months before we caught it,” said Ken Vance, executive director of POST, which regulates and certifies law enforcement in Georgia.

But training center assistant director Keith Howard said he doesn’t believe the misuse is out of control. The program designer didn’t think safeguards were needed because he didn’t think law enforcement officers would lie, Howard said.

The Associated Press and staff writer Emma Witman contributed to this report.


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