The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office is making an effort to answer first-time community questions about officer training and agency policies that have come up in light of recent protests across the U.S. calling for reforms to law enforcement agencies and an end to police brutality.
Questions about training and policies with the FCSO started to pop up in the county after Forsyth County United, a group started on Facebook, held a protest earlier this month in front of the main courthouse in downtown Cumming.
The group sent a list of demands to the agency, which included requiring officers to take part in de-escalation training, requiring that officers use body cameras and banning chokeholds from the agency’s use-of-force policy — all policies that Sheriff Ron Freeman said the agency has implemented for years.
Three representatives of a group of approximately 230 residents also met with Freeman along with Chief Grady Sanford and Cpl. Doug Rainwater on Tuesday, June 16, to discuss a letter written to Freeman and signed by the community members on May 29, which outlines questions of their own about FCSO's training and policies.
Group representatives Meredith Finley-Simonds, Kyle Mobley and Christine Watson said that Freeman agreed on four action items to work with the community members on in the immediate future.
These items include creating an FAQ sheet for online publication that will provide answers to the group's questions that were laid out in the letter, posting on FCSO's social media pages about issues brought up in the letter, publishing up-to-date FCSO policies on the office's website, and publishing an annual Internal Affairs report to the FCSO website.
Both parties agreed that the meeting went well, and Freeman said he was happy to answer all of their questions about the agency.
Freeman said that he is proud of the FCSO’s policies and the training that they currently have in place. The agency is nationally accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), meaning that they must meet 500 standards and best practices, and the agency must regularly reassess its policies and procedures for improvement.
As one of only 10 law enforcement agencies in the state that has earned and kept a national accreditation, the FCSO also heavily invests its time into training for officers. While the state of Georgia only requires 20 hours of continuing education for officers each year, Freeman said that officers in Forsyth County average nearly 119 hours. Training for officers includes de-escalation training, crisis intervention and scenario-based training.
“We’ve invested not only in technology, but we’ve invested in our people and how we deal with things from suicide response classes for people — you know, how do we respond to people who are maybe in the throes of suicidal ideations?” Freeman said. “How do we respond to people with persistent mental health? How do we respond to people with substance abuse? We do a lot of that, and it’s mandated that we do it every year. We do it consistently throughout the year, and we incorporate de-escalation into all of our use-of-force training.”
Freeman said that the sheriff’s office is also diligent about looking back at any cases where an officer used force during an arrest. Anytime an officer uses force, that case is reviewed by the officer’s commanders, then the FCSO training division, then the Office of Professional Standards, and finally by the chief deputy. These cases are also catalogued so that FCSO leadership can go back and look at any notable information. Citizens can also access this information by simply asking for it through an Open Records Request, which anyone can file online on the agency’s website.
“Every use of force in Forsyth County is reviewed at four different levels to ensure that we’re doing things right, that it’s compliant with our policies, that it’s legal and lawful,” Freeman said. “And then on top of that: What can we learn from it? Just because it’s legal and lawful, doesn’t mean we can’t learn how to get better by taking some clues and what most people would call Monday-morning quarterbacking, but we certainly owe it to ourselves and our community to do that every time we can to learn how we can get better and how there’s other opportunities.”
For instance, Freeman said that they noticed recently that officers usually end up on the ground with suspects in most cases when they use force — when all de-escalation techniques have been exhausted and have not worked — and so they started to look at how they arrest someone while on the ground without the officer striking them.
“Just recently within the past three weeks, I asked our training unit to look at implementing some Brazilian Jujitsu into what we call our defensive tactics training,” Freeman said. “It sounds silly, but the fact is if we know as we evaluate these use of forces, with how often we end up on the ground trying to handcuff someone, it makes sense that we need to increase our skill set there.”
Freeman said that President Trump’s executive order on safe policing issued last week is a step in the right direction for many agencies as it lays out basic best practices and calls on law enforcement to be transparent and open with their communities.
“Anytime we’re not willing to look introspectively at our profession and see if there is an opportunity to get better, then we’re doing our community a disservice,” Freeman said.
Freeman believes that the practices laid out in the executive order could allow more room for other local agencies and sheriffs to take that close look at how they are running their agencies. He said that does not mean that other sheriffs have underperforming agencies, but it provides an opportunity for outside help, which gives the offices a different perspective on their own practices and policies.
As the executive order was issued and protests have continued in the last few weeks, Freeman said that FCSO deputies and leadership have received an overwhelming amount of support from the community.
“We have had people buy lunch for the entire agency — and I’m talking about 300 to 400 people — like 10 times in the last few weeks,” Freeman said. “We’ve had HOAs coming up and donating thousands of dollars to our non-profit foundation called B.A.D.G.E., which supports law enforcement and all public safety officers of Forsyth County in need. My guys are reporting to me left and right, they can’t buy their lunch. They’ve had their lunch bought more in the last three weeks than they ever had in their careers, and that’s a testament to our community.”
Freeman said he believes that that the community’s support proves that they trust the FCSO and its deputies. He said when he met with Forsyth County United this past week, it was also the first time during his time as sheriff that any resident has asked him about the FCSO’s policies or training.
Freeman firmly believes, however, that law enforcement agencies always need to be welcoming of community feedback and open to sitting down and having a conversation with residents. As a sheriff, he said he always wants to take the voices of others into account.
“Unfortunately, as we’re seeing that a lot of folks, regardless of your stance on anything right now, we’ve gotten into a social media, news-driven cycle …. where if we don’t agree 100%, we can’t talk,” Freeman said. “And if we can’t do that, we’ll never solve any problems in this world.”
After the talk with community members on June 16, Freeman said that the FCSO is working to make their policies and procedures more accessible by putting them up on their website. In the meantime, the documents are available to the public. Residents simply need to call and ask for them or submit an Open Records Request.
Freeman also said that he and other county and officials usually hold town hall meetings for any residents who many have questions.
“When we get past the craziness of COVID-19, we’ll continue those things,” Freeman said, “and we’re looking forward to those because I think they give a great opportunity for our citizens to interact with us and for us to answer any questions that may be out there and be held accountable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that members of Forsyth County United met with Sheriff Ron Freeman and other FCSO leaders on June 16. The meeting was actually held by three representatives from a "loosely organized group of 230 citizens" that shared information about the meeting on Forsyth County United's Facebook group. Further details about action items discussed during the meeting have also been added.