Exclusive: Columbus officers speak out following assessment of police department

News Leader 9 continues its deep dive into an assessment of the Columbus Police Department
Published: Feb. 1, 2023 at 8:52 AM EST
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COLUMBUS, Ga. (WTVM) - News Leader 9 continues its deep dive into an assessment of the Columbus Police Department, specifically about the hiring and retention of officers, in the midst of staffing shortages.

It’s no secret, crime in Columbus is a hot topic. The city even has been dubbed the nickname “Kill-umbus”, due to the high ratio of crime in the last few years. With that in mind, a group of businesses in the private sector paid for an assessment of the Columbus Police Department to be completed by consultation company, Jensen Hughes. The group came back with several recommendations based off their findings that the Columbus Police Department should consider implementing into their practices to better perform. Two of those areas of recommended improvement include morale and retention within the department.

The issue of morale within the Columbus Police Department has come up publicly before. In 2022, during a city council meeting, members of the local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police in Columbus voiced their concerns about the climate of the police department following a survey conducted on 232 of its members. The results showed 84% of the officers surveyed gave Columbus Police Chief Freddie Blackmon a vote of low confidence. The understand the issues of the officers better, News Leader 9 sat down with three current Columbus Police Officers to gain a different perspective.

At the request of the officers, their names won’t be given, their faces won’t be shown, and their voices won’t be used. News Leader 9 will only report what they had to say.

When the officers were asked the difference between current Chief Freddie Blackmon opposed to his predecessor, Ricky Boren, officer one said, “With the old chief you could go and sit and talk to him about problems, have open communication about the problems and he would give you his answers right then and there. There was no, well I’ll ‘hem and hollering’ about this, or tell you what you want to hear, and turn around and do something completely different.”

Officer two followed and said, “With Blackmon it’s that.. ‘Let me get back with you’. His favorite line.”

According to officer three, Blackmon never gets back with you.

The Jensen Hughes assessment contends the 90 interviews they conducted revealed a general feeling of distrust throughout the department and a lack of communication from the chief was voiced frequently. Recommendations include the following:

1.1) Develop a strategic plan to support the goals and mission of daily operations and engagement. The strategic plan should contain 1) measurable goals for achieving the desired outcomes for internal operations: 2) the enhancement of collaboration, communication and service delivery to the public and stakeholders; 3) training for all of the stakeholders and staff; 4) a capital budget and information technology plan; and, 5) fiscal needs, including stakeholder education regarding the financial requirements necessary to ensure future service delivery goals.

1.2) Make internal procedural justice a part of the department’s organizational culture. This focus on internal procedural justice should not only improve the relationship among department members, but also carry over to help build positive relationships between the department and the community it serves. Internal procedural justice includes providing employees with a chance to be heard, ensuring that decisions are made in a fair and impartial manner, treating people with respect regardless of circumstances and demonstrating trustworthiness through fair and transparent processes and decision making.

1.3) Conduct a review of CPD’s policies and procedures to determine how to incorporate internal and external procedural justice throughout the department.

1.4) The department should consider engaging department members in revising the CD’s mission statements to ensure consistency of the mission and to reflect the importance of the community. This will also assist the department in improving its efforts to implement internal procedural justice and providing an opportunity to enhance communications between department leadership and the rank and file.

1.5) The department should develop a formal internal communications strategy that would outline how, when, and where department leadership will provide information to all members of the department on the department’s mission, strategy and vision, as well as when significant policy or organizational changes are being implemented. The plan should also outline the steps rank and file members of the department may use to make recommendations and provide suggestions to CPD leadership.

1.6) The chief should regularly engage with department members by attending roll call briefings, making appearances in the field and exploring other opportunities to communicate with officers and civilian staff on a regular basis.

1.7) Consider providing a mentoring program for CPD leadership that provides an opportunity for those leading the department to receive input from external peers and/or law enforcement professionals to help guide them in their responsibilities. Consideration should also be given to taking advantage of the leadership expertise that exists within the Columbus community itself to help expand and develop CPD management.

1.8) The CPD and the City of Columbus, in conjunction with the Columbus business community, should consider creating 501(c)(3) foundations that allow community stakeholders and business leaders to become more aware of the needs of their department so they may leverage their community connections and organizational resources to help the police department fulfill its mission. Such organizations typically provide funds or purchase of new technologies or other equipment the city may not be able to afford, as well as provide training and mentoring opportunities for those within the department.

News Leader 9 also asked is there an issue with Blackmon’s race, considering Blackmon is a black man and the former chief is white.

Officer two responded by saying, “This isn’t a black thing. I’m a black female. He’s incompetent. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He doesn’t lead well. He can be a nice man to your face, but he is not a leader.”

Jensen Hughes’ assessment also highlighted retention within Columbus Police Department. Their findings claim 200 of the departments 415 employees provided feedback into the main reasons officers are leaving the department. Those top three reasons being poor leadership and micromanagement by the chief, pay and pay compression, and retirement benefits.

241 officers left the Columbus police department from 2016 to 2020. In 2021, Blackmon’s first full year as chief, 84 Officers resigned. The year before, 50 officers resigned. Jensen Hughes points out the department should develop a retention plan that focuses on actions the department could take to make officers want to work there. According to the group, there is no retention plan in place.

Retention Recommendations include the following:

4.1) Develop a robust written retention plan that identifies specific recommendations for measurable actions that may be taken to help establish a working environment where CPD personnel want to work. These actions should include identifying 1) who will lead the efforts, 2) how to evaluate the success of the efforts and 3) establishing the timelines that should be used to complete the tasks. These actions need to address the reasons why department personnel want to leave and why they choose to stay.

4.2) Develop a formal exit interview process which provides employees an opportunity to provide feedback on reasons for leaving the department. These reasons should be reviewed and analyzed regularly so that the department can address issues before retention worsens.

4.3) As recommended in the Pay Study, regularly conduct a small-scale salary survey to assess the police departments competitiveness with other police departments in the region, with a focus on those departments CPD personnel are leaving to join.

4.4) Create leadership development and career development plans to provide department members and potential lateral transfers to the department clear career advancement opportunities, such as promotions or assignments and transfers.

4.5) Establish a formal advisory group within the department, consisting of members representing all ranks and units, to elevate its members perspectives, experiences, and opinions to command staff and city leadership

4.6) Explore the creation of a new tuition assistance program designed to cover educational costs for officers seeking a bachelor’s degree or higher in a defined course of study who commit to a minimum number of years of employment with CPD following graduation.

4.7) Explore any opportunity to provide additional benefits to personnel that could entice them to stay at CPD. such as assisting with establishing work schedules that take childcare into account.

4.8) Develop a rotation program for Patrol Officers to gain experience in Criminal Investigations and other units to provide opportunities for officers to gain more experience and to develop the feeling among officers that the opportunity for movement within the organization exists. This also provides supervisors with an opportunity to evaluate personnel if a permanent opening in the unit should arise and enhances the skill sets of members of Patrol Operations.

President of the Columbus branch of the NAACP, Wane Hailes told News Leader 9 he supports Police Chief Freddie Blackmon. He, like the police chief, questions the merit of the assessment.

“I don’t care if you say the morale is bad or not as long as you’re doing your job. You are public servants,” said Hailes. “If you have a problem stand up and say you have a problem. Don’t throw a rock and hide your hand. Come in front of a camera. If you are interviewing people come in front of a camera and say what you have to say. If it’s your opinion it’s your opinion. They didn’t have this problem with Chief Ricky Boren. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”