WTOC Investigates: Chatham County Police Department

CHATHAM CO., GA (WTOC) - For the first time since the decision was made to dissolve the city-county police merger, the Chatham County manager is talking about the police force the county commission is planning to build to police the unincorporated areas.

Instead of turning over that responsibility to the sheriff's office, the county has chosen to build its Chatham County Police Department from scratch - but to what advantage and at what cost to the county taxpayer?

I tried to get those answers from the county manager on Friday...with limited success.

The county is already on a recruiting blitz, going after dozens of current Metro and county officers with great benefits and even better top end salaries for those who agree to return. So, the reason behind the decision certainly must have everything to do with public safety, right?

WTOC: "Why did you decide as a county that it was going to be more effective and more efficient to start again with a Chatham County Police Department, as opposed to expanding the sheriff's responsibilities here?"

Lee Smith, County Manager: "Well, that's something that I would have to probably ask the chair to respond to."

[The following letter is from Chatham County to the City of Savannah confirming the county had received the city's letter about terminating the SCMPD agreement.]

Smith also deflected when asked to give a dollar amount on what the new CCPD would cost when compared to policing by the sheriff.

"I would consider all costs equal because it's going to take the same number of people, vehicles, that type thing," Smith said.

That came to just over $16 million when crunched two years ago. Compare that to what Sheriff John Wilcher says he can provide police protection for today.

"Hey, I can do the job for $11 million. If you all want to talk to me, come talk to me. Nobody has talked to me," Sheriff Wilcher said.

WTOC: "So, in the process of them making the decision to rebuild a CCPD, they never even came to you to say, 'what can you do?'

Wilcher: "Nope."

WTOC: "This is sounding like a power play to me."

Wilcher: "It is."

A power play that could cost county taxpayers an extra $5 million a year. It might be why, here in Georgia, only 11 of the 159 counties have county police departments with more than half of those in the Atlanta Metropolitan area.

[WATCH the full news conference below.]

The sheriff insists he tried on several occasions to get together with the county board chairman as well as the county manager to tell them exactly what he could save them by expanding the sheriffs office's role in policing the county instead of starting up a brand new police department - reminding them why he felt there were only 11 county police departments in the entire state right now, saying, "it's because of the additional expense of unnecessary bureaucracy that always occurs through more government."

But Wilcher takes the county's decision a step further.

WTOC: "Is there a real advantage of having an independent police force over having the sheriff expand his responsibilities, or is it the other way around?"

Sheriff Wilcher: "I think they just don't want to come to reality and give me the job to do it."

WTOC: "Why not?"

Sheriff Wilcher: "They don't want me to have the power. They want to be able to manipulate the chief who they want to do what they want, when they want."

Even Lee Smith can agree with that.

"They wanted a police chief that worked directly for the county just as was done years ago," Smith said.

Wilcher will tell you that system of policing puts politics ahead of public protection.

"Someone that works for the county police can only have jurisdiction in the unincorporated area. Someone that works for the city police only has jurisdiction in the city. A sheriff's deputy can go anywhere in the county bounds and anywhere in the bounds of the state," Sheriff Wilcher said.

[The following letters is an exchange between Chatham County and the City of Savannah about vacating county-owned facilities by Nov. 17, 2017.]

Again, Smith could not talk about a public safety or cost advantage to a new CCPD. He did say many of those questions will likely get better answered at a Sept. 8 commission workshop on the new police force, once the rest of the commission hears what they're about to spend and what they're about to get.

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