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Gainesville says its police won’t assist private jail

City, Hall County still at odds

POSTED: May 14, 2009 10:28 p.m.

The private entity that soon will run the North Georgia Detention Center in Midtown Gainesville has asked the Gainesville Police Department to provide police assistance when the facility opens this summer.

It doesn’t appear that city officials have any intentions of doing so.

Police Chief Frank Hooper told the City Council Thursday that Corrections Corporation of America sent him a memorandum of understanding that requests assistance from the police department. The agreement would call for the police department’s assistance in quelling riots and other criminal activity at the immigration detention center, he said.

City Council members opposed the idea. City Attorney James E. "Bubba" Palmour also advised them against entering into the agreement, which offered the city police department indemnification from any wrongdoing, Hooper said.

Palmour said no amount of indemnification would protect the city if a "full-blown problem" arose at the facility, which will be housed in the old Hall County Jail on Main Street.

"Once you have a death or a serious injury in a jail, it will take you five or six years to get through the litigation," Palmour said.

Hooper said the city police department is not equipped with the training or equipment to deal with jail riots.

"We shouldn’t be, because we’re a municipal police department," City Manager Kip Padgett said.

Most council members said that any police protection should be the responsibility of the Hall County government, which is leasing the facility to CCA.

"It sounds like the county commission needs to step up and accept full responsibility for that facility," said Councilman George Wangemann.

Councilman Danny Dunagan also said any security responsibilities at the facility should fall on the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.

He said the county should use the $2 million in annual revenue it receives from leasing the facility to CCA on providing police assistance.

But sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said the county agency this week signed a similar agreement with CCA and a separate agreement to house the North Georgia Detention Facility’s inmates in an emergency if there is room at the Hall County Jail.

The agreement the county signed states that the Gainesville Police Department will be the agency that is primarily responsible to respond to incidents at the facility, Strickland said.

"These (memorandums of understanding) are basically for emergency situations, which of course, the Gainesville Police Department does have the primary responsibility for," Strickland said. "However, if the Gainesville Police Department requested our assistance, then, of course, we would respond accordingly."

Steve Owen, director of marketing and communications for the private jail operator, said if the city does not sign the agreement, it will not cause any problems for the North Georgia Detention Center. He said the memorandum of understanding sent to Gainesville officials was an effort to "get a working relationship" with local law enforcement agencies.

Although Owen would not comment on specific concerns city officials cited Thursday, he said CCA officials were "more than happy to continue to have dialogue" with the city.

"We want to be good neighbors," Owen said.

The road to a working relationship between the city and CCA has been a rough one thus far. CCA’s plans to start operating the detention facility on Main Street conflict with the city’s dreams of a redevelopment in Midtown chock full of high-rise hotels, office buildings and walking trails — dreams that don’t include razor wire.

Many of the problems between the city and CCA spring from a conflict the city has with the county over the future of the jail property. City officials announced their intentions to buy the property in late 2007. The deal never went through and both the city and county disagree on why the contract allowing the city to purchase the property was never signed.

In the last round, city officials halted inspections and refused to issue building permit for renovations on the Main Street Jail, but later reneged "in the spirit of moving forward."

However, Thursday, there still seemed to be some kinks in the relationship between city, county and CCA officials as Dunagan commented that the corporation taking over the Main Street jail is "notorious for mistreatment" of inmates — an allegation to which Owen responded that the fact that CCA operates in nearly half the states in the country, many of which have increased their utilization of CCA services, should speak for the company’s track record, he said.

"I hope the county commission is real happy with what they’ve done," Dunagan said.



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