Sheriff Rod Howell, Police Chief Sean Ladson

Colquitt County Sheriff Rod Howell, left, and Moultrie Police Chief Sean Ladson, right, reacted earlier this month to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

MOULTRIE, Ga. -- When Moultrie Police Chief Sean Ladson and Colquitt County Sheriff Rod Howell came to the June 1 protest on the town square, they were asked their thoughts on George Floyd’s case.

Why did three people — three officers -- sit there and let that happen, Howell asked. 

“We as lawmen, just reading the story, knew there was enough there,” Howell said. “Anybody that saw the video knew there was enough there.”

But the kicker to it all was in another question: Why did it take so long for the chief to address it? Disappointment came from Howell’s voice as he said his next words.

“I think it was very easy to address. Why wait till the riots started to start arresting?” Howell said. “In my opinion, I think that’s just smoke and mirrors.”

Ladson added in a point there. He said law enforcement can take your life but in order to have that ability, there must be accountability and Minneapolis didn’t have that.

“If we have those kinds of responsibilities and that kind of power, then that needs to be something that’s taken very, very seriously,” he said. “Command staff and administration have to act and hold themselves accountable 100 percent.”

When it came out that Derek Chauvin, the officer who held his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds leading to his death, was found to have 18 prior complaints — two of which were “closed with discipline,” Howell said, “it shouldn’t have even gotten to this point.”

“That man should have never been wearing a badge,” he said.

“That’s from news/media [but] based on what I saw on the complaints that he had, he should’ve never been in law enforcement -- he should’ve been gone,” Howell said.

Ladson said this goes back to hiring people. Law enforcement agencies don’t want to just hire people to put bodies on the street, they want quality people on the job. That makes it hard, he said.

Last year, the MPD looked at 70 people to hire, Ladson said, and a year and a half from then, they’d hired only six. 

“We wouldn’t lower our standards for what we want,” Ladson said. “So the process starts with hiring the right individuals for the job and not just putting people in uniform.”

However, transparency with the people goes a bit farther than the MPD’s hiring policies. 

The chief speaks at city council

With a community in dismay, Ladson decided to fully suit up in his police chief attire and address his city at the June 2 city council meeting.

He told them the MPD teaches a four-hour use-of-force course to its officers once a year based on peace officer standards. The course includes U.S. Supreme Court rulings as well as state and local guidelines.

“Once the use of force course is completed, there is also, of course, de-escalation,” he said. “When we train on de-escalation, we identify signs and symptoms of emotionally disturbed people.”

The course then compares and contrasts benefits and disadvantages of de-escalation, identifies factors in decisions attempting to de-escalate situations, and describes techniques to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.

It’s invaluable training taught by field training officers, officers usually with years of experience, he said. With that he read the MPD’s policy for use of force.

“It shall be the policy of the Moultrie Police Department that the value of human life is immeasurable, therefore officers will use only that force necessary and reasonable to protect life and effect lawful objectives,” he read. “Use of force can include uniform presence, verbal commands and handcuffing. Those incidents happen on a daily basis and they’re not documented, but we do have documented use of force incidences where officers have to use free hands or O.C. spray or pepper spray, taser, or baton, or less than lethal munitions with bean bag rounds or less than lethal shotguns.”

In attempt to expound, Ladson said the MPD implemented the less than lethal shotgun -- a modified Remington 870 -- in 2019. The gun is painted orange so that it’s known that it’s a less than lethal option.

The bean bag rounds used in it are effective up to 75 feet away, but will not be used closer than 20 feet away. Deputy Chief Michael Cox is the instructor for less lethal weaponry, including all chemical agents, tasers and impact weaponry.

Five officers have been trained with this option: two first sergeants in the patrol division, a first sergeant in criminal investigations and two patrol sergeants.

“In 2020, there’s going to be a recertification,” Ladson said. “Every time these officers recertify, they also go back through our use of force class.”

The plan by the end of 2020 is to have the patrol lieutenant and two more patrol supervisors trained in this option, giving up to three less than lethal shotguns in service at anytime during daily operations.

He then gave the MPD’s policy on use of deadly force.

“An officer may use lethal force only when an officer reasonably believes that that action is in defense of human life including the officer’s life or in defense of any person in imminent danger of serious physical injury or when necessary to stop or prevent the commission of enforceable felony where the victim is in imminent danger or serious physical injury, death or the apprehension of a fleeing felon,” Ladson read.

However, with a fleeing felon, Ladson said there are guidelines. There must be probable cause that the felon committed an enforceable felony and there is a real threat of safety. Officers must identify themselves and give notice of intention, if there is time, of arrest and if circumstances permit.

All other methods must be exhausted.

“After any use of force incident, a complete report of an incident report is done,” he read. “An incident report and use of force report along with body camera footage, dash camera footage any and all other evidence related to the report is turned over to the shift supervisor.”

Then to the division commander, the field operations commander and then to the deputy chief and then to the chief. At any time during this review, if an officer’s actions are seen as outside of policy, the incident is immediately reported to the chief and internal affairs for an investigation.

In 2019, the MPD reported 11 use of force incidents, and as of June 2, it had reported two use of force incidents this year.

Attempting to put it in perspective, Ladson said out of 35,215 contacts with citizens in 2019, there was one use of force incident per every 3,201 citizen contacts.

As for complaints, he said not every complaint that comes across their desk is documented, but between him and his command staff, they try their best to address it. They tell citizens to file formal complaints so that they may begin a thorough investigation.

As a state certified agency, he said, that’s their process and they’re audited every year. In 2019, the MPD received 18 complaints. In 2020, it had received seven up to June 2.

When officers receive complaints, the severity or multitude of complaints and results of the investigation will determine if that officer stays.

Ladson went back to the hiring process saying that’s why the department is so stringent on bringing in new hires.

“We’re not going to settle for less,” he said. “My command staff won’t settle for less and you should not have to settle for less as citizens of this community.”

He said the department nor the city will settle for just putting bodies in uniforms and gave Floyd’s death as just the reason why they won’t do that.

City Councilwoman Lisa Clarke Hill agreed. She called it sickening that the officers allowed that to happen rather than stopping the situation from even getting that far. 

Again, Ladson responded, that’s why the hiring process is the way it is.

“If you come to the police department in Moultrie and you put an application in, that means you only have about an eight percent chance of actually getting hired,” he said. “We’re not going to lower our standards.”

One of Ladson’s early efforts to reach out to the community was the chief’s walk, where he and other officers walk through a different neighborhood each month to meet residents. The walks have been on hiatus, but Ladson said at the city council meeting that he’ll be bringing them back this summer, and the MPD will continue the downtown and bike trail police details.

“You can’t have a police department that is going to be effective if they’re not effective with the community,” Ladson said. “There’s no legitimacy if the community can’t stand behind the police department.”

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