About this story
With law enforcement in the spotlight following the death of George Floyd and others nationally, The Times is investigating myriad topics related to how local departments operate. Reporters have reviewed budget documents, federal databases, local and state policies and spoken with leaders in the departments, including the Hall County sheriff and city police chiefs, along with other sources. Articles will publish as The Times team is able to gather pertinent information to provide a full picture of our community’s public safety environment. Those with tips or questions about this coverage can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those interested in commenting about these issues can submit a letter to the editor of 500 words or less to email@example.com for consideration for publication.
Amid the chants nationally of “defund the police,” Hall County area law enforcement will remain, based on current spending levels, a major part of overall government spending.
About $56.5 million is spent on Hall County law enforcement, more than one-fifth of overall budgets in Gainesville, Hall County, Flowery Branch and Oakwood, according to budget records obtained by The Times.
That’s a slight drop from last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its thinning of revenues can take the blame there.
That anticipated revenue loss “likely factored into a larger gap between many of the (departmental) budget requests and the final budget recommendations,” Hall County spokeswoman Katie Crumley said, noting the emphasis on cuts was “non-essential projects.”
The push to defund – and even eliminate – police departments sprung out of protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While that’s still a drumbeat, much of the issue has morphed into how much is spent on departments and how the money’s spent – as well as if it could be spent more effectively.
“When you start talking about the idea of defunding, it quickly becomes an issue of the number of officers that are on the road,” Oakwood Police Chief Tim Hatch said. “(Oakwood Police Department) already is at what I would consider a minimum staffing level for safe operations of a police department.
“If you were to address the idea of defunding a portion of the operation, the balance would be quickly shifted away from the ability to provide safe police services. I’m talking about safety all around. I don’t think anybody wants to see that happen.”
“Our community needs to have a conversation about (police funding),” said the Rev. Rose Johnson, executive director of Newtown Florist Club, an activist group that sponsored a two-part open-air conversation with members of law enforcement and the judiciary. Part 2 will be held Thursday, July 2.
“We know our law enforcement agencies are strapped with responding to mental health issues, social service agencies, and we know that it has an impact on the capacity of their officers and deputies to do the job and do it well.”
In a report on police spending in Georgia, the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute found that from 1977 to 2017, Georgia saw a 122 percent increase in spending on police.
“This increase coincided with an 81 percent decrease in spending on cash assistance for low-income families, a critical safety net program to help families make ends meet,” the report states. “Disparate policing practices have also led to the overincarceration of Black Georgians, and there has been an increase in spending on the policing and detention of immigrants.”
In this year’s local spending, personnel salaries, as one might expect, makes up about $28.6 million countywide, or nearly half of the overall total. Add in benefits, such as insurance, and that cost is much higher.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has 372 sworn personnel, such as deputies, spread among its six divisions: jail, patrol, operations, investigations, court services and special operations (such as SWAT).
As for other agencies, Gainesville Police Department has 102 sworn employees, including officers and administration; Oakwood Police Department, 20; and Flowery Branch Police Department, 16. Each department has civilian employees, as well.
Among the key budget components, equipment, ranging from guns and bullets to tasers, are estimated to cost the departments some $543,000. Also, some $236,200 has been budgeted for training and education – an issue that’s at the heart of national calls for police reform – which is less than 1% of total spending countywide.
Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said he hopes departments can get more money for training, maybe through grants or “federal dollars will be turned loose on that.”
“I know a lot of the smaller agencies would definitely depend upon that,” he said.
Otherwise, “our officers have a diversity of training, from use of force to de-escalation, and more,” Couch said. “That has been ongoing and will continue to be. I think that the majority of law enforcement agencies should try to focus much more on community policing, per se, as opposed to militarization of operations.”
Congress has been debating police reform, with training a key piece.
A Senate bill encouraged state and local police departments to make changes to standards for training and for when force is acceptable and would penalize departments that don’t mandate the use of body cameras. House Democrats’ bill would also create national accreditation standards for police, including setting a national standard for the use of force.
“People need to feel safe and secure when they are at home, at work, shopping or simply out enjoying themselves,” Couch said. “As with any profession, we have those that tarnish our badges and abuse their authority, so let’s deal with the problem.
“As for funding or defunding, I don’t know of a single law enforcement agency that’s fully funded or staffed that can accomplish everything that a community truly needs.”
Local police funding
Here are amounts in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1 at these law enforcement agencies. The dollars for Oakwood represent fiscal 2020, which began Jan. 1 and ends Dec. 31.
Gainesville Police Department
- Total spending: $10 million
- Salaries: $6 million
- Training: $55,700
- Uniforms: $52,000
- Vehicle maintenance: $255,000
- Retirement: $798,773
- Equipment: $96,100
- Overtime, other pay: $132,100
- Benefits: $1.1 million
- Miscellaneous (fuel, insurance liability, supplies): $1.5 million
Hall County Sheriff’s Office
- Total spending: $43 million
- Salaries: $20.8 million
- Training: $162,100
- Uniforms: $161,280
- Vehicle maintenance: $1 million
- Retirement: $3.5 million
- Equipment: $347,581
- Overtime, other pay: $2.6 million
- Benefits: $6.7 million
- Prisoner medical care: $1.36 million
- Miscellaneous (fuel, risk management insurance, supplies): $6.4 million
Flowery Branch Police Department
- Total spending: $1.5 million
- Salaries: $880,824
- Training: $10,000
- Uniforms: $10,000
- Vehicle maintenance: $30,000
- Retirement: $53,215
- Equipment: $12,800
- Overtime, other pay: $22,719
- Benefits: $273,577
- Miscellaneous (fuel, legal fees, supplies): $206,865
Oakwood Police Department
- Total spending: $2 million
- Salaries: $876,470
- Training: $8,400
- Uniforms: $10,600
- Vehicle maintenance: $20,000
- Retirement: $231,750
- Equipment: $86,740
- Overtime, other pay: $30,000
- Benefits: $496,523
- Miscellaneous (fuel, risk management insurance, supplies): $239,517
Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said, “I think there will be changes. I’m not against police reform. Long before any of these current events were going on … we were getting into the business of embedding mental health workers in our department.
He added: “I see in the future that, from a federal, state and local level, we’re going to have to figure out how to fund more dollars for more programs like those. The credentialing of the people who do those jobs cost a lot more than a police officer.”
Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers said that “as far as budget and services go, our (spending) is pretty lean.”
“Some agencies have more (spending) discretion than we do, because we don’t do a lot of asset forfeiture,” or confiscation of property related to crimes, which can help supplement budgets, he said.
The struggle for Flowery Branch is making sure funding law enforcement keeps up with growth, as the city could add thousands of residents over the next few years based on housing development trends.
“Those people will have an expectation of service … and when they call, they expect an officer to get there pretty quick,” Spillers said. “That puts me in position of asking (council members) for more police officers, and this is the absolute worst time in this nation to ask for that.”
Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, who works with law enforcement as part of his prosecution efforts in Hall and Dawson counties, said he believes that “as we go forward in protecting our community from crime and ensuring justice for all of the residents … it will continue to be important to fully fund our law enforcement agencies.”
That is “so that the best people available will want to work in them, and that programs that will foster even better relationships between law enforcement agencies and the people they serve can be developed and expanded for the benefit of all of us.”
Northeastern Judicial Circuit Public Defender Brad Morris, whose office deals with police in criminal prosecutions, said, “Police are people, and there are some you like better than others. Something bad may happen by one person, but that doesn’t mean the whole group is going to do that.”
As to the funding debate in the country, he said, “I don’t know to what extent people want to give up having police around or not. If you don’t (have police), you may have anarchy. There’s a reason they’re there. As to police methodology, that should always be looked at.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.