Looking ahead to a third term as Hall County’s sheriff, Gerald Couch said community relations is at “the forefront of my efforts.”
Moving the Sheriff’s Office forward in a time marked by COVID-19 and an increased spotlight on law enforcement will be challenging.
“Any type of relationship ... is built on mutual trust and respect, and that’s something that you don’t just achieve overnight,” Couch said.
Amid calls for reform that range from cutting law enforcement budgets to new standards for the use of force, Couch is aware of the need for better communication.
“We do a good job here of educating our employees and providing all this training, but we don’t sell that or we don’t tell that to the public of what all we have to go through,” Couch said.
Community and law enforcement leaders are trying to change that.
The Newtown Florist Club hosted an open-air conversation June 18 in which community members discussed issues concerning the criminal justice system in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in Minneapolis police custody. The second phase of the open-air conversation is set for Thursday, July 2, when law enforcement officials will share their concerns with the community.
And after a deluge of emails, letters and phone calls regarding the Sheriff’s Office procedures on use of force and community involvement, the Sheriff’s Office took to its social media for a question-and-answer campaign.
Solutions won’t all be easy though.
For instance, the Newtown Florist Club suggests a citizen oversight committee to review use-of-force incidents when an arrestee is harmed. Use-of-force reports go through the chain of command, starting at the officer’s supervisor all the way to the Office of Professional Standards. Adding citizens to the mix could be complicated.
“That’s a tough situation there, because you have to have some degree of training and education in those areas to make a judgment call. You have to be able to review all of the evidence in the situation,” Couch said.
Couch said he has discussed with his staff the possibility of a citizen panel made up of community leaders so they can keep lines of communication open and go over any lingering issues.
“I think part of some of the topic(s) in a group setting like that would be, of course, educating on what we do and sharing this information with them,” he said.
Among some of the other concerns, Couch discussed body cameras and how the pandemic has hampered his plans.
Right now, all employees driving a marked Sheriff’s Office car have a body camera, but Couch wants to expand their use.
“What my goal was going into this next budget season was to be able to provide body cameras for the remainder, but we’ve got the essentials covered right now. Of course, with COVID-19, we’ve had to reduce our budget quite a bit, so that may be something that I have to put off for a while,” he said.
The sheriff said he believes body cameras have a proven record of being an evidentiary tool, whether it goes to a court case or for assessing complaints against officers.
“If you do have a problem officer, you’re going to see it. That helps us in policing our own, and I believe it gives a very accurate representation of what happens,” Couch said.
Couch will also continue an emphasis on training.
In 2015, Sheriff’s Office employees had more than 23,000 hours of training. In 2019, that number was more than 37,000.
“We just built a new firearms training complex. Phase 2 of that will be building an additional training center there and a lot more upgrades to our current training center. I want to make sure that we have one of the best training centers in the state,” Couch said.
Training also extends to the community. Couch mentioned the doubling of neighborhood watch programs in his past terms as well as the citizen’s academy, an eight-session program in which participants learn about the different aspects of the sheriff’s office.
“We are a very diverse community, but I think that that’s what gives us our great strength. As sheriff, I can guarantee that we’re going to continue to broaden our community focus,” Couch said.
Couch also touted the recent move to the new records management system, which allows them to do crime analysis in real time. He said this will allow the department to better pinpoint where to focus its officers, something that would be particularly useful regarding property crime.
Among other plans for Couch’s next term is a county pay compression study, and the sheriff said he will “continue to make every effort to increase our benefits and our pay for our employees.” Pay compression happens when there is not much of a difference in salary between long-term and newer employees.
Couch would also like to get the retirement match back up to 8%, where it was before the Great Recession. He discussed the possibility of a sliding scale where officers with 10 or more years with the department could get a retirement match of 10 or 12%.
“I think public safety is a completely different profession. The certifications that you have to attain and maintain are extremely important, and they (deserve) better compensation, in my opinion. I think that public safety employees in the county government should be separated from the rest of the employees and maybe have a higher scale of retirement match,” Couch said.