During his 18-month stint as Glynn County’s police chief, Jacques Battiste prioritized an urgent task for a force that had lost its state certification and faced a legacy of internal corruption: updating the force’s policy guidelines that were more than a decade out of date.
Earlier this year, a police search suggested that Glynn County officers are not yet trained on the new policies. On Feb. 14, an accused shoplifter told police officers that she had stowed drugs inside herself. Multiple officers at the scene, including the interim police chief, did not know department policy dictates that only medical professionals should perform invasive body searches.
Instead, coaxed by her superiors, a female Glynn police officer performed the search on the side of the interstate, as qualified emergency medical personnel looked on.
An internal review of the incident said that Battiste, who left the force in December 2022, failed to put in place a system to ensure that officers had learned the new policies. Instead, they had merely been posted online for officers to access.
His successor, Scott Ebner, who was sworn in as Glynn County Police Chief on June 22, said he plans to prioritize training so such incidents won’t happen again.
Ebner would not provide a timeline for full policy training. He said he plans to conduct more in-person training sessions that focus on policies he described as “must know,” such as searches and use of force, as opposed to ones officers can look up or ask a supervisor about.
More policy training would also help the department regain its state certification, which expired in 2018 because it failed to meet minimum standards. Regaining certification is still “well over a year away,” according to Ebner.
Decades-old police policy
Ebner’s tenure starts as Glynn County experiences an uptick in violence. Making sure officers know and effectively use policies helps residents feel comfortable to collaborate with police to solve crimes, according to the federal Task Force on 21st Century Policing report.
“It’s one thing to create a policy, it’s another thing to continually evolve and train to that policy,” Ebner said.
Police procedures also provide boundaries and guidelines for officers on all matters, from traffic stops to missing persons searches and interview techniques, instead of individual cops taking matters into their own hands.
Organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), codify best practices and push for high professional standards at local departments. A review of the GCPD in 2018, however, found the force’s policies to be lacking those necessary for a modern police department.
The standards body, for example, said it was unable to find GCPD policies that covered guidelines for officers to respond to calls for service involving individuals affected by mental illness or handling issues related to marginalized communities.
The same year as the report, Georgia stripped the police department of its state certification for not maintaining standards on record keeping. The person the Glynn County commissioners hired to help fix these issues, John Powell, was later indicted in 202o and fired.
In 2021, Battiste became the county’s first Black police chief.
As a matter of priority, Battiste moved to update policies, some of which had not changed since the 1990s. Glynn officers experienced “a conflict in what was current policy, what was policy from what they were used to seeing,” Battiste said in an interview. “We had to establish a better structure.”
Battiste also created a training division to educate officers on those policies as part of a path to regain state certification.
He left office in December 2022, claiming parts of the department were hostile to his reforms. The county manager, however, said he lacked command-level experience and community policing chops to properly lead.
Body search against agency rules
In the vacuum of leadership, training did not happen in a consistent way, according to Assistant County Manager John Gentry.
The lack of oversight resulted in gaps of knowledge, Gentry wrote in a report after the February incident involving the intrusive body search. New officers coming into the department were not trained on police force policies, he said.
“GCPD lacked a thorough process for implementing policy changes and ensuring all officers read, understand, and acknowledge policy change,” he wrote.
Senior members of the force, including Interim Chief O’Neal Jackson, were also not adequately trained, according to a review of the Feb. 14 police encounter.
A call went out to GCPD about an alleged shoplifter who fled a sporting goods store, and Glynn County Sheriff’s deputies pulled a car on I-95 over matching the description of the suspect. GCPD took over the investigation and allegedly found stolen merchandise in the stopped car. They detained a male driver and female passenger.
The female passenger was “grimacing” and appeared to be in discomfort, according to the internal investigation review of body camera footage. Officers searched her name and informed her she had warrants out for her arrest from Garden City. The male driver told officers that she used drugs.
The woman vomited and shook on the ground. EMS responders from Glynn County Fire and Rescue who were also on the scene told officers they believed the woman was faking a seizure, the documents said.
The woman then told EMS that she had concealed methamphetamine in her vaginal cavity, the documents said.
Interim Chief Jackson, who was also at the scene said he was told that the woman’s life could be in danger.
The question about what to do next deviated from GCPD procedures, according to the internal affairs report of the incident.
Male officers at the scene called for a female officer, apparently assuming that she would conduct the intimate search of the suspect.
Officer Barbara Shirley arrived and asked her male colleagues for advice on what to do. She had been on the force for less than a year and said she had never done a search like this before, according to the report.
Sgt. Justin Floyd, an eight-year veteran of GCPD and her supervisor, told Shirley to remove the alleged drugs as a way to ensure the suspect’s safety.
Fire and Rescue advised on a possible way to conduct the search but did not offer their service, review documents stated. An EMS member told Shirley to “go deep and scoop,” according to the documents.
At that point, Interim Chief Jackson approached Shirley. “You want to give it a shot or what?” he said.
Shirley then conducted two vaginal searches of the suspect who had been moved to the back of a Glynn County patrol car. The search yielded no drugs.
Afterwards, the woman was placed on a stretcher and taken to the hospital.
Fallout from search
Officers only learned later that what happened on the side of I-95 was against the agency’s own policies.
“Only a physician may conduct a physical body cavity search,” the policy states. Written approval from leadership is required as well.
Shirley, Floyd and Chief Jackson all said they did not know the policy on the day of the search, according to their interviews with an internal investigator.
Jackson also told the internal investigator that he didn’t know Glynn County’s policy on cavity searches but “knew traditionally these type of searches should only be conducted by medical personnel.”
Jackson also stated that he did not realize that a cavity search would be conducted. He did not address what he meant by asking the younger officer if she was going to “give it a shot.”
“Chief Jackson stated his intention behind his request was for Officer Shirley to allow the female to remove the drugs and Officer Shirley to only observe,” the report said.
Jackson, Floyd and Shirley all receive reprimands following the internal investigation.
The incident and internal review all occurred while Jackson was a leading candidate to become permanent chief of the force. Ultimately, Ebner, who was the Glynn public safety director at the time, won the job as chief as well.
Ebner said he’s going to be as well-versed in police force policy as possible to be a role model for the department.
“I can put a sign up here and put a mission statement up or say whatever I think it is, but it’s just a sign,” Ebner said. “If people aren’t taught that, and that becomes part of their culture, and they’re trained to that, then really, it’s meaningless.”