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A queasy feeling about truth in PTC

John Munford's picture

In the journalism business when you run across a Truth Teller, you value them. You respect them. You trust them. Particularly when they prove to be right over and over again.

Truth Tellers are willing to share everything of public record with you, warts and all, even if it might make themselves or their agency look the slightest bit bad. They tend to have a thick skin and understand that at the end of the day, all public good is served by being OPEN and most of all, telling the TRUTH. Both openness and truth in government lead to credibility.

Openness, truth and accountability aren’t as important to the Liars. They are willing to fib, cheat, lie by omission and lie to your face. Unlike the Truth Tellers, Liars are often thin-skinned and easy to rub the wrong way.

I will refrain from calling anyone a Liar in this column. I will admit, however, to feeling a bit queasy about some facts over the past few months that have led me to a few uneasy conclusions.

Let’s take the issue of inflated crime statistics in Peachtree City. More accurately, we will address the drastic increase in “calls answered” by the police department which I inquired about several months ago.

These “calls answered” are tallied along with other crime data presented to the City Council, typically prior to the first meeting of each month. The data is published as part of the “council agenda packet” that the city posts online the Friday afternoon prior to a Thursday meeting (this is commendable, by the way, and Fayette County government handles their info in a similar fashion).

I do not recall the numbers but the spike was so significant that my reporter’s Spidey Sense knew something was up. So I called Capt. Rosanna Dove of the Peachtree City Police Department, whom over the years I have come to know as a Truth Teller. She’s the one who has to “deal” with us media types, and by deal I mean answer our calls and emails, respond to open records requests, etc.

Sure enough, something was up with that dramatic rise in the number of “calls answered” though it seemed innocuous at the time. Capt. Dove informed me that the police department had CHANGED the way it kept score for its total of “calls answered.” They started counting business checks and other similar mundane tasks as a “call answered” even though no call for assistance was placed by a human being.

I could understand why that change would be made. The goal, presumably, was to more accurately reflect what cops do day in and day out, so I didn’t think it was a big deal.

It became somewhat of a big deal in a matter of days or weeks when the topic of that increase in calls came up in a meeting of the Peachtree City Council. As I recall, Councilman Eric Imker asked about this sudden increase in “calls answered.”

The reply to Imker FAILED to mention the fact that business checks and other cop tasks were being added to the books as “calls answered” even though they were not sparked from a request for assistance from a business owner or citizen.

I vividly recall that Councilman Imker praised the police department for answering a ton more calls “from citizens” and he thanked Chief H.C. “Skip” Clark and the department for “doing more with less” and handling the steep rise in calls without additional personnel, or something very similar to that effect.

There was never a correction to explain that some or most of the increase in “calls answered” was due to the significant change in the way those figures are tallied.

Imker’s assumption was that the police department was answering WAY more calls for help from citizens. I noted this in the back of my head and, quite honestly, should have figured out a way to report that as a news story.

At best, this is an error in omission. At worst, it’s aLie by omission. I am unable to judge which. Either way, the public, and a sitting city councilman, were led to believe there was a lot more to the numbers than there actually was.

I guess that looking back on this particular event, along with the next one I’m about to tell you ... well let’s just say I finally put it all together early Saturday morning in a divine intervention moment much akin to Joliet Jake and Elwood “seeing the light” in The Blues Brothers. James Brown, however, was nowhere to be found when I had my epiphany.

On to our final story. You may recall a while back The Citizen published a news item about a golf cart driver who pointed a gun at another golf cart driven by a mother who was squiring her 9- and 10-year-old kids on the cart path near the pedestrian bridge that crosses over Ga. Highway 74.

Our police scanner first alerted me to the incident. It happened late on a late Tuesday afternoon in May, after our paper went to press, and I heard officers respond to the area and look for the offenders.

This time, I successfully tucked the data in my brain and recalled it the following morning, calling Capt. Dove for the lowdown. If memory serves I got a story on our website shortly after our conversation.

It also turned out that soon after my call to Capt. Dove, the department released a “media release” that was emailed to newspapers, tv stations, etc. in the metro Atlanta area.

Some time after those events transpired, I was informally chatting with Chief Clark following a meeting at City Hall.

The Chief and I were walking down the exterior stairs into the rear parking lot. He was making a point of how open his agency is, and how he instructed Capt. Dove to disseminate the news release on the cart path cap gun incident. He specifically took aim at his predecessor, former Police Chief James Murray, alleging that Murray routinely covered up such cart path altercations.

What is it conventional wisdom says about people who have to tear others down to make themselves look better? I can’t remember.

Compounding the fact is that Clark didn’t know I had called Capt. Dove with my inquiry well in advance of what was an eventual press release by the department.

I’ve been in this business long enough to know that police departments can’t realistically issue press releases, etc., about every major or minor incident that goes down. It’s just curious to me that Chief Clark would seek to improve his department’s stature with the media, specifically myself, by bragging about something that I can tell you almost for certain was very unlikely to happen: the issuing of a news release about a scrape on the golf cart path in which no one was physically hurt.

Why is this column coming now? Well, to be honest I think some residents are quite miffed at the recent upheaval at the police department. They may be right to be suspicious about the change.

Several months ago, there was a move to get rid of three police captains as part of a reorganization. It sputtered when called into question at a city council meeting by two of those captains.

In the meantime, the city that is so supposedly top-heavy on police personnel has created a NEW position of assistant police chief, and the job was handed to a person who has professional connections with City Manager Jim Pennington and at least geographical connections with Chief Clark.

Not two weeks after hiring this assistant police chief comes a renewed recommendation to ditch these three captains that are as yet unnamed. It will result in putting a whopping two more patrol officers on the streets, while the city is seeing significant challenges to safety on the cart path system. It doesn’t mention that the assistant chief’s pay is probably worth another two officers on the streets.

Over my considerable tenure here, I have found the Peachtree City Police Department to be a high-achieving organization. I feel pretty certain that citizens deserve to know when that excellence faces being watered down by outsiders who seek to install their Yes Men at the price of experienced personnel.

Then again, maybe the City Council will hand Chief Clark carte blanche to remake the department in his own image. It really should be up to the citizens as to whether that is a legitimate goal or not.

[John Munford has been reporting for The Citizen since the summer of 2000. His regular beat includes the Peachtree City Council, the Fayette County Commission and public safety, including the Peachtree City Police Department.]

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Live free or die!

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