After a summer filled with reports of attacks on police, Newnan remained relatively unscathed by the violence. However, officers were not impervious to the national dialogue and the feelings that go along with it.
Across the nation, police departments are still dealing with the aftermath of officer ambushes in Texas and Louisiana. For many families, having a loved one involved in law enforcement is even harder these days, according to Newnan Police Chief D.L. “Buster” Meadows.
In his department, officers have remained at a heightened sense of awareness.
“It’s sad to say, but the blue band around our badges has rarely come off lately,” he said, noting the band that honors an officer killed in the line of duty.. “After Baton Rouge, kids told their parents (on the force) they didn’t want them going to work anymore, but we’ve worked through that now."
Violence against law enforcement isn’t something that only happens in big cities. In June 2016, Coweta County Sheriff’s Deputy John Curtis came under fire after a routine traffic stop turned deadly. Michael Dimitri Johnson fired over five shots at Curtis before fleeing into the woods where he was ultimately killed after raising his gun once again on law enforcement.
While attacks on police officers across the nation hasn’t stopped many young people from getting involved, recruitment in Coweta County has remained relatively steady.
However, Sheriff Mike Yeager said that it’s getting harder and harder to get viable candidates for positions like deputy sheriff.
“Our application base has been down for the last year or more,” Yeager said. “There’s been so much negativity in the media about public safety over the last several years, so I think that has a bigger effect on recruiting than people think.”
While their application stack might not be optimal, Yeager said that it won’t affect their hiring procedures.
“We’re not going to water down our standards,” he said. “We get applicants who are certified and have worked with other agencies, but we have some issues with their background checks, so we don’t pursue them.”
At the police department, Meadows recalled several candidates pulling out at the last minute when spouses ultimately vetoed the idea of going on patrol.
“You have to have a heart for it,” Meadows said. “You have to be willing to help people, get in the trenches and it’s not always the best of conditions. You have to be able to go from a sedative moment to high intensity at the drop of a hat."
The Newnan Police Department hires new officers from outside the community, but the overwhelming majority ultimately move to the area and become residents. According to Meadows, the department enjoys a reputation for being a well-run organization and progressive.
“Recruits do a lot of research before they come to a department,” he said. “Their biggest criteria is wanting to see a difference, and this department has a stellar reputation.”
Good communication and an emphasis on transparency are two principles both the sheriff’s office and police department adhere to.
A recent study revealed that the majority of Americans believe the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers can reduce tension in communities.
Sixty percent of Americans believe the technology can heal rifts between police and the communities they protect. The report — released last November by the research firm YouGov and commissioned by body camera manufacturer Reveal — found that 47 percent of respondents believe tensions would be reduced significantly.
Both the Newnan Police Department and Coweta County Sheriff’s Office implemented the technology in 2014 ahead of most other agencies in the country, and each says they have seen nothing but positive results.
“It makes it much easier to look into complaints,” Meadows said. “When there is a video, things change."
For over two years now, both the Newnan Police Department and Coweta County Sheriff’s Office have been using body cameras and say they have seen nothing but positive results.
The utilization of video technology has not only helped alleviate potential complaints about officers, but has also provided another layer of transparency.
“If there is ever a perceived issue with one of our personnel, I simply inform the concerned party that we’ll go back and review the footage of the incident,” said Sheriff Mike Yeager. “They’re generally surprised to know a camera was running and it ends their argument pretty quickly."
For Meadows, the need for body cameras was very real. With the rise of amateur video in the social media realm, many could argue that the police have continued to battle a public relations nightmare in the court of public opinion.
“I think the national media is to blame for a lot of the issues we’re facing nowadays,” he said. "They put things out without any substantial proof or facts. But when the full story comes out, there’s never any correction on their part."
The idea that police departments are at war with the community is something else that has been twisted in the realm of national media, according to Meadows. Local residents have been very supportive of public safety in the wake of the officer shootings and protests against the police.
“We’re very fortunate in so many ways being here in Newnan,” he said. “Our communities will talk to us – maybe not at the scene of a crime, but later. The community at large supports what we do, and that really helps in so many ways."
The art of communication is something that can help tear down barriers that exist in the community and strengthen relationships between friends, neighbors and strangers.
“I think if we concentrate on becoming more connected as a community, we can be the example for the rest of the country,” Meadows said. “Neighborhoods used to ask for their streets to be closer so they could have a get together.
“I’d love to see more of that. It’s okay to be friends with people you might not know or who are different. The more you talk to each other, the better the community you have."
Clay Neely: firstname.lastname@example.org, @clayneely