Jacques Battiste was nervous Monday night. As the sole finalist of the six-month search for a police chief of Glynn County — a department scarred by controversy — Battiste answered 17 pre-screened questions about the future of the police force.
“I’ve sat for Senate oversight committees and I’ve never felt as nervous as I do today,” Battiste, a veteran Federal Bureau of Information officer, told the crowd of about 50 people. The group, equally split between Black and white residents, included county commissioners, members of local advocacy groups, police officers and regular citizens.
Battiste hasn’t been officially confirmed by the county commission, but as the sole finalist of the high-stakes search, it’s likely he will be. The evening event, his first time to meet the community reeling from Ahmaud Arbery’s killing last year, held the potential to help or hurt the county’s reckoning with racial tensions. (Editor’s update: Battiste was confirmed by the Glynn County Commission on June 17 and will begin work July 6, 2021.)
Battiste would be the county’s first Black full-time police chief, succeeding interim chief Richard Evans. Evans, a veteran police officer, was born in Brunswick and has been the department’s interim chief since the start of the year. Evans is the only Black officer to be promoted to the rank of captain in the department, something that also occurred after Arbery’s death.
Evans was traveling and was not at the Q&A, but Battiste, who grew up in North Carolina, said he has a solid relationship with the Brunswick native, who he’s known since 2004. Battiste said they met at a National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives event.
More than 35 candidates applied for the position, and the county paid the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police between $7,200 and $9,000 to conduct the search, county spokesman Matthew Kent said. Battiste worked for the FBI for 22 years and is currently a deputy constable and training and tactical coordinator in New Orleans.
County commissioners said Battiste’s background in law enforcement and training made him an attractive candidate for a department that sorely needs reform and is looking to regain accreditation. Though Evans has worked in the department for nearly 20 years, the outsider Battiste has training he can bring to officers in Glynn County, the commissioners said.
Battiste said that after his nomination as chief became official, Evans would remain assistant police chief, his position before serving as interim chief. Commissioners said they see Evans working closely with Battiste and becoming chief sometime in the future.
“I think he will bring quite a bit of positive enhancement,” Allen Booker, a county commissioner, said about Battiste. “He seems to be a very likable person, humble, but well educated, well skilled and willing to share that.”
Some county residents who attended the Q&A felt cautiously optimistic about Battiste’s leadership of the embattled police force, saying his ideas and approachability made him a good candidate.
Building trust between the communities of Glynn County and Brunswick, particularly communities of color, is at the top of Battiste’s priority list, he said.
“Officers should not just be compelled to answer certain calls. Officers need to be invested in the communities that they serve,” Battiste said. “Too often we’ve seen in the past officers who only respond to dynamic calls but aren’t willing to make the investment in the communities they patrol.”
In the wake of Ahmaud Arbery’s death in February 2020, many Black residents of Brunswick and Glynn County have been outspoken in their mistrust of the police and said they are more often targeted than defended by law enforcement. And within the force itself, morale is low, due in part to the upheaval after the indictment of the former police chief and the department’s narcotics squad on criminal charges.
Glynn County police did not investigate the three white men standing trial for killing Arbery, a Black man, for months after his death. District Attorney Tom Durden requested the Georgia Bureau of Investigation investigate Arbery’s death in early May 2020, and the GBI arrested Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan the same month. All three have pleaded innocent.
A policing divide
Booker said the structural problems in the police department are apparent to him. The police force is majority white. Glynn County is 26.6% Black and Brunswick is 55% Black.
“I shouldn’t have to worry about myself or my children, my sons, dying over a traffic ticket,” Booker said at the Q&A. He interviewed Battiste multiple times with the rest of the commission and said he thinks Battiste has the skill and leadership necessary to change the police department.
Attracting and retaining quality officers, especially those that are representative of residents, is a key part of Battiste’s plan to build trust. In order to have officers out in the community, there needs to be enough officers to respond to emergency calls and patrol the streets and engage with residents. Right now, Glynn County police is short on people, and officers are simply running from emergency call to emergency call, Battiste said.
Glynn County Police Sgt. Colin Scogin, the man named officer of the year in 2020, told Glynn County Commissioners earlier this spring that 80% of the men and women serving on the county police force have less than two years of experience in law enforcement. The department has trouble recruiting officers and keeping them, Scogin told the county leaders, because pay is so low. Glynn police earn on average $5,000 less than the average pay among other police departments in Georgia, he said.
“We’re hiring them, we’re training them, and they’re taking off,” the police sergeant told the commission.
The choreography of Battiste’s Monday evening introduction to the public was highly managed.
Police advisory panel member Domenic McClinton asked questions to the job finalist that members of the public were required to submit in advance. McClinton said there wasn’t enough time in the 1-hour meeting to discuss all the issues raised. The police panel combined some of the questions to be more concise, McClinton said at the beginning of the meeting.
Battiste thinks increasing salary and providing opportunities for education, training and promotional growth will build a police force that is better-quality and looks more like the community it serves, leading to more equitable interactions with residents. He wants to attract 25 to 30 new officers, he said during the Q&A.
Battiste also said he would discipline officers who violate county standards and make sure they don’t just move to another police department.
Elijah Bobby Henderson liked Battiste’s focus on the community and said he’s hopeful that Battiste can bring needed changes to the police. Henderson, a member of local social justice nonprofit A Better Glynn, said it was important to bring in more officers of color.
“One, it makes the community feel better because they see themselves, and that in itself helps transform culture,” Henderson said. “Two, it transforms the department because they bring new views and different perspectives.”
One question Battiste didn’t get asked: why he would want to take on the job of reforming a police force under a national spotlight due to Arbery’s death and that has long been marked by scandal.
The Glynn County police department has been unaccredited since 2018. A 2019 report from the county manager noted that the previous police chief John Powell “inherited a culture of cronyism, outdated policies [and] lack of appropriate training.”
In February 2019, an internal affairs investigation into Powell and other officers involved in a drug task force began. The former chief and three officers were indicted in late February 2020 for various charges, including having sex with confidential informants. The scandal led to state lawmakers passing a resolution that would allow the public to vote on disbanding the police force. A judge declared the resolution unconstitutional.
Reaccreditation requires training and community engagement. Battiste said during the Q&A he doesn’t know exactly how long it would take for the department to regain accreditation, but tentatively named three years as a goal.
Battiste’s experience in law enforcement and his training was a draw for some commission members. Booker and Commissioner David O’Quinn said they were optimistic about Battiste’s ability to work with and train Glynn County officers.
Ultimately, Glynn County residents will have to wait and see what changes Battiste will make if he’s confirmed as police chief. Battiste said in an interview that while he was nervous at the Q&A, he isn’t apprehensive of inheriting a police force with such a checkered history of racial tension and national debate. He said he wanted the job so he could work with the Glynn County community and create solutions to the problems that plague the area.
“I’m looking forward to the opportunity,” he said. “I’m excited.”