Originally created 02/25/03

Panel wants OK to investigate



Members of the city's Human Relations Commission want the Augusta Commission to give them permission to investigate the Richmond County Sheriff's Office at will - something the citizens panel is precluded from doing under its governing ordinances.

Even if the Augusta Commission votes next month to change the laws that govern the citizens panel, Sheriff Ronnie Strength said, it won't change the way he does business.

Charged with easing racial tensions in the community and educating the public about diversity, the Human Relations Commission also serves as an investigative agency for discrimination complaints by mediating claims between residents and area corporations. The office the panel serves under, the local branch of the federal Human Relations Commission, also carries out federal investigations of civil rights complaints, including racial discrimination.

When a complaint concerns the government, including the sheriff's office, the panle is prohibited from investigating it, however. Its governing ordinances exempt city offices from being the subject of inquiry.

"We're supposed to be the conscience of our community, but our hands are tied," Peter Shirley, a Human Relations Commission member, said of the investigative exemption.

Several members of the panel appeared before the Augusta Commission's administrative services committee Monday to ask that the exemption be removed. The committee split in its decision, and the item will go before the full commission for consideration in March.

Even if the changes are approved, however, Sheriff Strength would not be required to comply with Human Relations Commission inquiries because he is an elected, constitutional officer, the city attorney said.

Although he didn't attend Monday's meeting, the sheriff said a commission vote will have no effect on the way he runs his office.

"If there's a (civil rights) violation, people elected me to manage this office, and that's exactly what I'm going to do," Sheriff Strength said. "But I'm going to be fair and not one-sided."

City Attorney Jim Wall defended the city's exemption from Human Relations Commission investigation, saying there already are investigative arms to oversee government offices.

For example, two citizens panels already review disciplinary appeals from sheriff's office employees and city employees. Complaints about police brutality are investigated by the sheriff's office's internal affairs department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"One of the reasons this exemption is included in the ordinance is so we're not investigating our own," Mr. Wall said, adding that second-guessing the sheriff's office could compromise criminal prosecutions.

Human Relations Commission member Stella Nunnally said that her panel receives many complaints about law enforcement officers.

"We're talking about treating people fair," Ms. Nunnally said. "We're taking about right and wrong."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or heidi.williams@augustachronicle.com.