Originally created 07/03/05

Department tries to rebuild image



ALBANY, Ga. - Veteran Albany police Cpl. Robert Ponder used to wear his uniform proudly in restaurants on his lunch break. But that changed during the past two years when at least 16 of his fellow officers were dismissed or suspended - some charged or convicted of crimes.

Charges ranged from simple battery to theft to having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

One was convicted of theft for stealing the wallet of a man seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Another pleaded guilty to offering money to an undercover officer for sex. And another is accused of stealing Social Security numbers, using them to open unauthorized cell phone accounts and running up $5,000 in bills.

Even with all this, the biggest blow came last September when Cpl. Andrew Hayslip, who had a history of domestic violence, drove his patrol car to his son's preschool and fatally shot his 4-year-old son, wounded the boy's mother and then killed himself. During the shootings, Cpl. Hayslip was wearing his uniform.

Horrified, the city forced police Chief Bobby Johnson into retirement two months early.

So now, Cpl. Ponder gets his meals at drive-through windows and eats in his cruiser. That way he doesn't have to hear all the wisecracks about the police department's problems.

"The first thing they ask is, 'What's wrong with y'all?'" he said, noting that some burglary victims have been reluctant to allow police into their homes, fearing the investigators would filch their remaining valuables.

"We're not all bad guys," said the 35-year-old officer, who has considered resigning out of frustration. "Sometimes the negative publicity puts you in a hole."

Officials in the south Georgia city of 76,000 hope the worst is over. They have announced plans for an independent probe of the 192-officer department to help restore public trust.

"I see this as a cleansing process," Mayor Willie Adams said. "It's good we identified these problems and are getting them out of the way."

Still unknown is how many additional officers might be charged as a result of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe launched in May. At the request of Dougherty County District Attorney Kenneth Hodges, the GBI is looking into allegations that some Albany officers might have worked part-time jobs during their police shifts.

"I certainly hope the current allegations are unfounded, but if they are not, we'll take appropriate action," Mr. Hodges said.

Even before the GBI stepped in, a sergeant was charged with 50 counts of theft and violation of his oath of office for alleged "double-dipping" - working a second job while getting paid by the city.

The department's problems began to surface under Mr. Johnson, who held the top job from 1997 until his forced retirement last September. Brad Pope, of the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, said his agency has investigated 70 Albany officers since 1986, most of them since the mid-1990s. Mr. Pope characterized the number of Albany investigations as "higher than average" for Georgia departments.

Mr. Johnson now is a part-time criminal justice instructor at Albany State University, teaching police-community relations and police administration.

Before Mr. Johnson's departure, a three-member panel found that he had ignored his department's hiring guidelines on at least nine occasions within 18 months. One of the officers Mr. Johnson hired, against the recommendations of a police hiring board, was charged with shoplifting last July.

Mr. Johnson was suspended for five days in 2002 for failing to report a rear-end collision with his police car. The accident went unreported until the other motorist went to the police department two days later seeking an accident report. By not reporting the accident, Mr. Johnson avoided mandatory drug and alcohol tests.

He has not returned repeated messages left by The Associated Press.

Acting Police Chief Bob Boren, a 32-year law-enforcement veteran and a graduate of the FBI's prestigious National Academy, has inherited the task of restoring public confidence.

Chief Boren credits his officers with a nearly 17 percent drop in Albany's crime rate this year.

"We've gone through some tough times," said Chief Boren, who was the assistant chief under Mr. Johnson.

"But we've identified the problems, and we've solved them. These men and women do a fine job and they work hard."

While refusing to specifically comment on his predecessor, Chief Boren acknowledged, "We didn't follow the standards, and that hurt us."