Local law enforcement has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons lately.
The arrest of a veteran Hall County sheriff’s investigator on child molestation charges and the conviction of a former Forsyth County sheriff’s deputy for receiving child pornography has highlighted the ugly truth that even among those sworn to serve and protect, some will be accused of the most serious of crimes.
Scott Pruitt, a former patrol sergeant who supervised other Forsyth County deputies, faces up to 20 years in prison after a federal jury found him guilty last week of using his county laptop to access protected investigative files containing child porn.
Mike Nix, a former internal affairs investigator for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and the agency’s 2000 Officer of the Year, was charged earlier this month with aggravated child molestation.
Their cases are just two examples of investigations that attract more news coverage than the average citizen charged with the same crimes.
But even while the arrests or convictions of law officers seem to be almost daily news items across the country, statistics show that the percentage of cops on the wrong side of the law remains small, at least in Georgia.
Last year Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council investigated about 3 percent of the state’s active 58,000 POST-certified officers for suspected infractions. About 7 percent of the approximately 1,400 cases investigated by POST in 2008 involved felonies, with 3 percent being violent felonies.
State legislation that took effect in July 2008 requires immediate suspension of the certification of an officer charged with a felony, regardless of whether the case has been to court. Officers facing felony charges and the agencies that employ them are required to report the arrests, POST Director of Operations Ryan Powell said.
Prior to the law’s passage, it could take six months to a year for POST to determine whether an officer’s case merited suspension or revocation of certification. The long delays hindered POST’s ability to take suspected criminals out of law enforcement, Powell said.
"We had a police chief charged with sexual assault and he bonded out and went back to work that night, and we couldn’t do anything about it," Powell said.
Powell said problems remain with the mandatory reporting of arrests. An officer could be arrested outside his jurisdiction and not report it.
"The news media is one of our best resources for that," Powell said. "We find out about it when it comes up on a (news) Web site."
‘Just collect the facts’
In most cases in Georgia involving suspected criminal wrongdoing by an officer, the employing agency requests an independent probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
Hall County sheriff’s Col. Jeff Strickland said the procedure of requesting the GBI to investigate an employee is used for anyone, regardless of how long they’ve been with the department.
GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the agency approaches the investigations of law enforcement officers no differently than it would for any other person.
"The procedure is to do a thorough investigation, interview all parties and collect any forensic evidence there may be," Bankhead said.
The GBI then forwards its findings to the district attorney in the form of a written report. The final decision on charges lies with the district attorney, he said.
"We don’t make recommendations, we just collect the facts," Bankhead said. What charges to bring, if any, "is not our decision to make," he said.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan called the recent Forsyth County case "truly sad," and said in a statement that his agency "will continue to work with federal law enforcement to make sure that Georgia police officers and other employees know they are not above the law."
Dan Summer, a Gainesville criminal defense attorney who is representing Nix, said in his experience, defending law officers presents "special challenges."
"As a general rule, cops are harder on other cops," Summer said. "They feel like they’ve been let down and that their reputation has been sullied, and they go the extra mile to aggressively investigate and prosecute these cases."
Summer would not comment on Nix’ case except to say that "he’s had a spotless record and he’s entitled to a presumption of innocence just like everybody else."
Strickland said the arrest of Nix, a 20-year veteran of the department, was a "shock" to fellow employees.
"Any time a members of the law enforcement community is charged with a crime and arrested, it has a tremendous impact on the agency," Strickland said. "The Hall County Sheriff’s Office is a close-knit organization and the employees take great pride in serving the citizens of Hall County."
Strickland added that with just under 500 employees in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, "it’s important to remember that the decision of a single employee in no way reflects on the agency as a whole."
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said media coverage of a deputy or police officer’s arrest is inevitably a "morale-buster" for fellow officers in the department.
"I think they feel betrayed, because it is a small percentage, and there’s a percentage of people in any profession that are not going to operate within the law," Norris said. "But the same public that expects more out of law enforcement is quick to judge and make comments when these things come up."
Norris acknowledges that law officers are held to higher standards than the general public and that they should be, because "they’re our protectors."
"And the vast majority are hard-working people who want to do a good job," Norris said. "It’s unfortunate that there’s a few folks who bring a negative connotation for all of us."