During the Brunswick City Commission’s discussion of its proposed 2022-2023 budget, commissioners had a candid discussion with Brunswick Police Chief Kevin Jones about gang-related crime in the city. .
Of the total $18.6 million budget, 31%, the largest share of spending, is listed as going to the police.
Despite the large portion of the budget allocated to the Brunswick Police Department, it is in the midst of a prolonged personnel shortage.
Jones told the commission at its Wednesday meeting that he had 36 sworn officers on his staff, with three in training and two slated for the next class of training, leaving the BPD at 50% capacity.
Looking at the numbers, Commissioner Johnny Cason suggested that a new compensation package for police officers wouldn’t be enough given inflation and that the budget should include higher salaries.
City Manager Regina McDuffie, however, said current BPD salaries, as well as housing allowances and signing bonuses for new officers included in the new pay package, are competitive. Officer pay has increased 35% over the past two years, she said, along with other incentives.
It’s a multi-faceted issue that goes beyond salary, she said. The city is competitive and his department is looking for other ways to reinvigorate recruiting.
“We’re looking at other methods, we’re looking at our benefits, and some proposals might come forward,” McDuffie said.
The city is also evaluating police equipment and working conditions within the department to see if improvements can be made, she said.
If pay isn’t an issue, Commissioner Felicia Harris said there must be an underlying issue or issues causing the staffing shortage. She also said the recent shootings were the result of a “deeper rooted issue that’s going on in this community that we can throw money at and still won’t solve…possible among them being” different people migrating from other areas… moving into the living area with parents and girlfriends and whoever else.
Jones did not comment on either, but added that crime was up 12% in 2021 compared to 2020, largely due to gangs.
“The organization, the gang structure, they have leaders from Savannah, Jacksonville, who are above the gangs here,” Jones said. “They’re run now like the mafia of the 20s and 30s. It’s all about the money now. You don’t see them standing on street corners with a bandana sticking out of their back pocket or tied around their necks. It’s not like that anymore. »
Gangs are involved in almost everything, he said, from low-level crimes, like stealing unlocked cars, to recent shootings, he said. With so few officers, Jones said the department could barely respond to all the calls it received, let alone take proactive crime prevention measures.
He used a metaphor of a snake biting its own tail to describe the situation. An agent gets tired of working excessive overtime and leaves the department, which puts more stress on the remaining agents and makes them more likely to leave.
The department is in a situation where everyone is on deck, he explained. Command personnel, including himself, work nights, days and weekends, Jones said, even with additional help from the Glynn County Police Department.
Neighborhood planning groups and watchdogs are extremely helpful, he said. Through these organizations, police become more familiar with residents, who are then more likely to report crimes and provide information. It’s part of a larger law enforcement philosophy called community policing.
The BPD has been working to set up community policing with bike patrols and “talking to granny on the sidewalk” and getting to know people, Jones said.
“That’s how you stop crime, not running appeals and filing 15 reports a night,” Jones said.
Harris said she thinks average citizens could help police catch more gang members by providing as much information as possible if they happen to be near or witness a crime.
“I’m frustrated. I know the community is frustrated… it’s tiring, really. It’s not against the police. We also need to wake up and be proactive in sharing information,” Harris said.
She clarified that she was not suggesting that citizens should be heroes or ‘lone vigilantes’, but that anyone can take photos of the tags of vehicles potentially involved in crimes or give descriptions of alleged perpetrators. .
Cason didn’t disagree with Harris’s arguments, but he backtracked on his earlier thought that the city needed to invest more money to hire officers and buy new equipment.
He mentioned funds allocated to economic development, planning and zoning, suggesting both categories could be reduced to do more for the police.
“Somewhere you’re going to have to look through this thing and figure out where we’re going to find the money to fund the whole police department,” Cason said.
Mayor Cosby Johnson asked Cason to suggest specific cuts, which Cason returned to the city manager, saying the cuts were there “without question”.
Along with pay raises, McDuffie said she works with police to ensure that when cases come forward, they are properly litigated and criminals are kept out of the way.
The committee heard presentations on other parts of the budget before closing the public hearing.
About $11.86 million of the total budget is spent on staff salaries. Revenue comes largely from property and sales taxes – 37% and 42%, respectively. The rest comes from other sources of income.
Immediately below police costs are General Administration at 16%, Brunswick Fire Department at 15%, with the remaining 37% split between Public Works, Parks and Recreation, Planning and Development , government administration and “other”.
Commissioners also heard a request to use a building at 1327 Union Street to house a Gullah Geechee Heritage Museum, dubbed the Windsward Gullah Geechee Family Preservation Museum.
Delores Polite, who runs Windsward of Georgia, a local organization dedicated to helping those at risk, said she was amazed to learn how deep her family roots run in the area. Her family tree is wide, and while there are gaps that cannot be filled with documentation, she can feel a strong connection to the region and the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation.
Finding out about her family, Polite said she believes many black families are related and may not know it because of their surnames, which in some cases were taken by slaves of different masters. .
“That’s what Windsward wants to do, get this family back together,” Polite said.
The museum would be an anchor for the native black population of Glynn County, connecting them to their own stories. Some art and artifact donations are already lined up, Polite said.
It’s not just about preserving the past but also the present, Polite said.
Attending the meeting were the parents of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man murdered while jogging in a neighborhood just outside the city limits.
Johnson credited Polite for both preserving the area’s history and advancing the idea, which could bring many people interested in history to the area, he said. The next step would be to ask the Downtown Development Authority to draft a building use contract, he said.
The commission also discussed appointments to the Downtown Development Authority and the Brunswick-Glynn Economic Development Authority.
None of the potential candidates was a resident of Brunswick, which did not sit well with Johnson. He wanted the town to be represented on all the various local councils and committees in the area.
While he asked his fellow commissioners to consider delaying action, they eventually voted to appoint Bill Dawson and Christy Jordan, both St. Simons Island residents, to the development authority.