From right, Manuel Ponce, Hang Tran and Taylor Saulters are sworn in as Athens-Clarke County police officers in June 2017. All three have since been fired, and Chief Scott Freeman (in white) resigned under pressure last month.
When he resigned under pressure last month, former police chief Scott Freeman left behind a divided department. While Freeman and his transparent, progressive, community-oriented style of policing were lauded by much of the public, and he retained the support of some officers, a combination of lackluster recruiting, poor management skills and politically contentious decisions left the police department understaffed and some officers fearing they might be the next to go, according to records obtained by Flagpole.
Documents released by Athens-Clarke County in response to open records requests include emails, texts, memos, spreadsheets, termination letters, exit interview forms filled out by departing police department employees and notes from interviews conducted by human resources officials.
“Attrition rates of both experienced and new personnel have reached critical levels that if continued, will present unacceptable risk to public safety and officer safety,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams wrote in a Sept. 13 memo requesting Freeman’s resignation. “Such attrition has grown increasingly over time as a result of a now pervasive loss of ACCPD personnel trust and confidence in the leadership of the ACCPD.”
About as many sworn officers and civilian employees (29 out of 318) left the department in the first seven months of 2018 as in all of 2017 (32) and 2016 (29).
Out of the 29 who left, at least four—all of them new recruits still in their probationary periods—were fired. The poor quality of recent recruits was one of the factors mentioned by several officers in exit interviews and interviews with human resources personnel. One referred to them as raw 21-year-olds with no life experience.
All in all, ACCPD has fired five new recruits—Taylor Saulters, Manuel Ponce, Hang Tran, Calvin Espeut and Drake Todd—in the past year for allegations including untruthfulness, failure to conform to field training standards and, in one highly publicized case, using a “patrol vehicle as a means to apprehend a fleeing suspect.”
One firing in particular remains fresh in the minds of many: A local investigation found that Saulters used excessive force in the apprehension of a man sought on a felony warrant for a probation violation stemming from a conviction for drug possession. According to the ACCPD Internal Affairs Summary Report, which served as Saulters’ termination notice, when the officer used his patrol car to hit and stop the suspect from fleeing, he “did not have any information that would justify using a patrol vehicle to affect an arrest.”
Saulters—whose father, Jerry, is the captain of the ACCPD criminal investigations division—was hired as a deputy for the Oglethorpe County Sheriff's Department days after his termination in Athens.
Both Ponce and Tran were let go from the department for "failure to conform to established ACCPD field training standards.” Since the two were on probationary status, they had "no rights" as new employees, according to the documents obtained through an open records request. Ponce was fired on Jan. 30, and Tran was fired two weeks later on Feb. 12.
The reasons for the firings of Espeut and Todd both involved accusations of untruthfulness, according to documents from the ACCPD. Espeut, who joined the force in January, was fired on Apr. 11 after "continued performance issues, failure to meet standards, and for allegations of untruthfulness with ACCPD staff and with an Athens-Clarke County Magistrate Court Judge,” according to ACCPD documents.
The probationary officer was questioned about an unexcused and unauthorized absence from work. The termination letter from Freeman notes Espeut told him and other personnel he would be out of work to attend court, but "one of those officers was not even at work, and the other personnel indicated that you did not have any conversations with them in regards to your apparent planned absence.” Espeut's “evasive answers” ultimately led to his dismissal.
Todd's termination stemmed from inconsistencies uncovered in background information provided during the application process, as well as “serious concerns regarding statements that you had made during your training phase,” according to his termination letter. Freeman gave Todd the opportunity to re-address his statements, but fired him on Aug. 2 for violating four ACCPD policies and procedures, including duty to be truthful, unsatisfactory performance, manner of conduct and fraudulent applications.
It was Saulters’ firing in early June, though, that weighed heaviest on some officers’ minds—not necessarily that he was fired, but that Freeman swung the axe so quickly, just two days after the white officer hit Timmy Patmon, an African American, with his cruiser on Nellie B Avenue. An internal investigation had not been completed—one officer said Saulters’ partner, Hunter Blackmon, was still being interviewed when Freeman called Saulters into his office—and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Georgia State Patrol had yet to weigh in, either.
“The speed [of] my decision was a big issue,” Freeman texted after meeting with a group of officers to explain his action.
“As expected, the morale hit on that squad has been significant,” one sergeant texted to Freeman, asking him to speak to the squad on the day after he fired Saulters.
The GBI investigation is now finished and in the hands of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia to decide whether to prosecute Saulters. The report remains exempt from the state open records law because the case is still pending, PACGA deputy director Todd Ashley told Flagpole last week, but the Atlanta Journal-Constitution later reported that it had obtained a copy, and that it cleared Saulters.
“It seems my previous press statement accurately predicted the finding of the state investigation,” said Philip Holloway, Saulters’ attorney. “There’s no question that Freeman and others made false statements about my client. As a result he and his family have suffered irreparable damage. Among other things, he has had to move to a remote location due to, among other things threats of physical violence. As we see it, my client was fired for no legitimate reason, had his reputation ruined, and was sacrificed at the alter [sic] of political expedience by Freeman and certain others who permitted it and participated in it.”
Lt. Richard Odum, who conducted the internal affairs investigation, was among a number of officers who praised Freeman’s decision to fire Saulters. “Being a leader is not easy,” Odum wrote to Freeman on June 4. “The decisions a leader makes have an effect on many and many will not agree. Please know that you made the right decision for the right reasons. Continue to lead and know that you made a difference in a powerful way.”
Some accused Freeman of making a political decision. In the aftermath of the Saulters incident, he texted with black leaders like artist Broderick Flanigan, poet Lemuel “Life” LaRoche of the nonprofit Chess and Community and Mokah Johnson, co-founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. He invited Johnson to speak at a news conference alongside him and told her he was “forever in your debt.” A couple of officers interviewed by county employees specifically criticized Freeman’s close relationship with Johnson, and one said he was “in the pocket of Athens for Everyone,” a left-wing political group.
The divide in the community was apparent from the thousands of comments on the department’s Facebook posts about the Saulters incident. “One side thinks [Saulters] was [doing] his job and I should be the one fired… and the other side thinks I didn’t go far enough,” Freeman texted to Public Information Officer Epifanio Rodriguez as they watched the comments roll in. “I’m at peace with my decision and that’s that.”
Even Freeman himself seemed to waver at times on whether Saulters intended to hit Patmon. An initial statement prepared by senior crime analyst David Griffeth quoted Freeman as saying, “The officers involved acted professionally and demonstrated that Patmon’s welfare was a priority.” Contrary to Saulters’ claim that Patmon jumped onto his vehicle, the internal affairs summary released June 3 concluded that Saulters turned the car in Patmon’s direction in an effort to cut him off. Freeman said in a text that he “wordsmithed” the summary but did not change facts.
Two days later, a number of residents attended a regularly scheduled commission meeting to speak in support of Freeman and ask commissioners and Williams to give him a vote of confidence, which several did. “You got a lot of support tonight sir!!” Assistant Manager Jestin Johnson texted Freeman. “Love it!” Meanwhile, Freeman and Deputy Chief Justin Gregory were texting back and forth about Commissioner Allison Wright’s “hilarious” facial expressions and denigrating newly elected Commissioner Mariah Parker as “immature.”
But as early as June, according to dates on county officials’ notes, HR was already interviewing police employees about Freeman’s shortcomings. Those employees included a captain, two lieutenants, a senior officer and two civilians: three white men, a black man, a black woman and a white woman. None are named except for Capt. Melanie Rutledge and Det. Timothy Conner.
Those interviewed characterized Freeman as isolated, resistant to criticism and lacking solid relationships within the department, with other county departments or with other law enforcement agencies. Gregory was described as competent but arrogant and hotheaded.
ACC Human Resources Director Jeff Hale told Flagpole that his department did not investigate the truth of the allegations made, but that taken together they led Williams to believe Freeman had lost the department regardless of their veracity.
The documents released also include a three-page email from Capt. Mark Sizemore to Hale dated Feb. 2, in which Sizemore recounts how Freeman twice angrily accused Sizemore of talking behind Freeman’s back, in reference to a conversation Sizemore had had with then-UGA police chief Jimmy Williamson about high-speed chases the previous fall. (Williamson, now retired, was upset about a chase that ended in a wreck that damaged several parked cars near the Hodgson Oil building.) Because he had also been demoted and transferred to a position where he had no one working for him, Sizemore wrote that he believed Freeman was trying to humiliate him and run him off.
Sizemore was one of four majors Freeman demoted to captain when he reorganized the department and eliminated the rank shortly after being hired in 2015. He said at the time that the reorganization would “flatten” the top-heavy department. He told the Athens-Banner Herald that he was “committed to building on a solid foundation for community policing that was set in place by [former chief Jack] Lumpkin.” Privately, though, he described the department as “toxic.”
One of the ex-majors, Charles Newsome, immediately retired, and Carter Greene, the interim chief between Lumpkin and Freeman, soon followed. In May, Sizemore took a pay cut to become the Clarke County School District’s police chief, citing “leadership” as one of the reasons. Mike Hunsinger stayed, and Williams named him interim chief when Freeman resigned. Those interviewed said the restructuring led to a “downward spiral.”
Some also expressed frustration with Athens’ liberal politics and the perceived leniency of local prosecutors and judges—in particular, the sentence of time served and probation Justin Scott received in a plea deal after an officer shot him when Scott reached for a gun during questioning in 2016. “I found my coworkers to be outstanding,” Conner wrote in his exit interview. “I was highly frustrated by the political climate [and] court system.” The Cumming resident took a job in June with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.
Other complaints included the introduction of 10-hour shifts and the depletion of traffic patrols and criminal investigations—many officers felt stretched too thin or shuffled around away from their areas of expertise. Not being allowed to take patrol cars home was another frequent complaint.
Freeman also faced criticism for the people he promoted. County commissioners pressed him at a work session last year on why his leadership team and a recent batch of promotions included mainly white officers. Freeman later appointed William Hood, an African American, captain and head of the uniform patrol division. Still, county officials noted a perception that women and minorities are “good enough for corporal, but not for sergeant.” One female officer who left said supervisors disparaged her for her small size and that the department has a “gender problem.”
As of July, 11 percent of officers were black and 3 percent were Hispanic, in a county that’s 28 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic. Only 11 percent were women.
In addition, Rodriguez, the PIO, is now on administrative leave. Interviewees alleged that he has a troubled past, and that Freeman pressured ACCPD’s Office of Professional Standards to reverse its recommendation against hiring him. Rodriguez told the ABH that he once stole some change to buy food as a teenager, spanked his child in public and called out of work once or twice when he wasn’t sick.
Some officers were also upset about the firing of Brad Collinsworth, a respected sergeant with a spotless record who admitted to using a cellphone to cheat on a test.
Issues came to a head on Sept. 13, when Williams gave Freeman the choice of resigning or being fired. He chose to resign and receive 90 days of severance pay.
Eight days later, Gregory also submitted his resignation, but said it was unrelated to Freeman’s. He told Flagpole that he had been thinking about changing careers for a year. “It’s time to figure out what to do with the rest of my life” after 23 years in law enforcement, he said.
The news of Freeman’s departure was not rolled out as planned because of an email glitch, according to a Sept. 14 email from Hale to the rest of Human Resources. “Unfortunately an inaccurate and somewhat misleading narrative took hold in the meantime both in the news and on social media platforms,” Hale wrote.
“There are a variety of contributing factors to the attrition, not all of which are due to the Chief or even under his control,” he continued. “Over the last three months to a year, the Manager has done a great deal of careful, thoughtful analysis of these circumstances. The Manager has determined that for wholly valid reasons or not, Chief Freeman does not have the full confidence of a majority of Department personnel. Further, given Chief Freeman's considerable talent, technical skills and leadership ability, the Manager believes he might have regained the full confidence of the Department if given sufficient time.
“However, given the ongoing and growing attrition and looming logistical challenges and safety concerns, we do not have the luxury of time. As a result, the Manager and the Chief mutually agreed that it was time for a change in leadership to stabilize the workforce.”
Editorial intern Ashlyn Webb contributed reporting.