Sumter County holds forum to discuss public safety

Published 11:23 am Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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Tracy K. Hall


The Sumter County community met at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on Monday, January 30, 2023, to discuss public safety. The panel consisted of City of Americus (COA) officials, Diadra Powell and Lee Kinnamon, law enforcement officers (LEO) Chief Mark Scott and Sheriff Eric Braynt, and public school officials, Walter Knighton and Travis Lockhart. Mark Scott set the context for the event in describing the recent illegal activity. About two weeks ago there was a “series of shots fired where people were injured.” In the span of about 24 hours there were four separate shooting incidents within the City of Americus. Chief Scott reports, while working hand in hand with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) arrests have been made on eight people, with warrants on two more. They have seized three rifles and eight handguns. Sheriff Bryant reports they assist APD by way of manpower and added patrol. Superintendent of Sumter County Schools, Walter Knighton, reports in the same time frame on January 19, with relevance unknown, fights broke out at Sumter Conty High School, causing the school to close for face-to-face contact while reverting to a virtual classroom until the time tensions were lowered. The CEO of Fresh Start Academy, Travis Lockhart, reports that since one of the shooting incidents happened close to the school, the school went on a soft lock down, meaning extra security measures where applied to keep the students safe. One of these was to utilize non-invasive search methods for students entering the building. One student refused to be searched and go through the metal detector. In refusing, Fresh Start contacted his parents saying he must be picked up from the school. The parent(s) declined to pick him up and told the Fresh Start staff to let him  and his sister walk home. “As they left the school, the young lady got shot on McCoy Hill.” Which accounts for one of the incidents of the day. Another shooting, days later, also caused Fresh Start to employ additional security measures. As Travis reports, anytime there are shots fired in the vicinity of the school, located on North Lee Street, such a measure is employed to keep staff and students safe. However, learning continues.

In regards to the COA, Mayor Lee Kinnamon addressed how they would get information out to the public. Lee reports at times such as these there needs to be “coordinated communication from the city.” Although the Emergency Management Agency, headed by Nigel Poole, does a great job of disseminating pertinent information, the incidents where outside the scope of EMA and it has been determined a Public Information Officer would be helpful during times such as these. Kinnamon warned against the “rumor mill” of social media and they have taken ownership of the fact something is needed to get the truth and solid information out both internally and externally. City Manager Diadra Powell, reports there was much “misinformation” in the community. With this noted, Powell invited the audience to write their questions on a card and submit them to the panel.

By way of APD, Scott reported some of the things being utilized and new opportunities on the horizon, such as a summit planned by One Sumter at the end of this week. The One Sumter Summit has long been in the works and will be a comprehensive look at our strengths and weaknesses as a community in regards to crime and its impact on the community. One Sumter, a private non-profit foundation has identified crime as an issue they would like to address as crime not only impacts the current wellbeing of the community but impacts the ongoing wellbeing, to include our economic growth. Bryant reports being proactive in routine patrol in addressing guns. He also wants those involved in gun crime to be held accountable in the courts. There is ongoing training about receiving calls from citizens who have spotted suspicious or odd behavior. Those calls are being addressed “expeditiously.” Scott, added to the comment putting weight on the need from calls of citizens. Citizen input is vital in helping LEO get to the right spot and talking to the right person. Both the chief and the sheriff emphasized the need to call as the information gathered through this way, “establishes a relationship.” Should something happen, if there is a previous call, LEO has a place to begin. APD has an anonymous tip line which allows a citizen to simply call on a recorded line. There is nothing that can identify the caller, and no need for APD to know who has called. Scott reports there is anonymity by simply calling dispatch/911 and giving the information. It should be noted, that if the tip is “active” or time sensitive, please call dispatch as while the tip line is monitored, it is not the most efficient way to get immediate needs addressed. If there is something suspicious happening now, please call dispatch. If, in retrospect, you feel you might have a piece of the puzzle, the tip line is appropriate. Anonymity is held in high esteem and can be trusted. In this way, the “retaliation” chances are lowered. The school professionals are working closely with LEO by way of safety and security for the students and staff of the schools. Safe and structured environments in the school are a requirement for education.

By way of a specific intervention, Kinnamon reports there are discussions on a “midnight basketball program” to be implement in the COA. While the discussion started before COVID, the pandemic did stall the progression. Kinnamon went on to remark on “belonging.” As a human, there is a great desire to belong and Kinnamon remarks being open to an idea which will provide a “healthy way to belong.” While Kinnamon brought one idea, he called on the community to come forward with additional ideas. Scott also mentioned he invited the public to bring their ideas and efforts to APD. Powell reiterated the community “has to be involved.” She also said “at risk children” need to be identified.

By way of the citizens, there is also a clear role for them to play. Lockhart, while admitting it might be uncomfortable to hear, the black male has a vital role to play in reaching youth at risk. Lockhart said a place to start is by meeting students. Fresh Start students could be considered “at risk” purely because they are in an alternative school setting. There is a plea for black men to get involved and realize they are the hero of this story and they are needed to see this behavior being lowered. In conjunction with the idea that everyone looks for a place to belong, black men are especially effective at partnering with young black men. Knighton also encouraged citizens to “say something” if they “see something.” Scott, reiterated there are some great options available to our youth, however many are not able to access these services. As an example, he referenced the Recreation Department. However the youth at risk of gun violence are not at the Rec. Dept. perhaps due to lack of transportation. Citizens could help in this area. Bryant encouraged citizens to “engage before you judge” this could be as simple as asking a youth their name or saying hello by way of connection. Bryant also stated he is using social media to engage, but it is a tenuous situation. A relationship needs to be established with people, not with a profile on social media. The sheriff also says there is great potential for further technology to be used. Kinnamon wants citizens “to think before you post. Ask before you make up your own narrative.” In considering social media, citizens should ask themselves if it is helpful—to “not whitewash but think before you post.” He went a step further on “see something, say something.” He reports if you see something, you can do something. He placed importance of being a good neighbor—to again, engage in activities which will let a youth know they belong. “I urge you, focus on neighborliness.” Powell reports citizens can help by “supporting us and being respectful.” She reports, “some of us get more information than others, we are working to change that. Some of us have more privilege to information than others, we are looking to change that.” She reports being asked why Americus isn’t growing. “Its not going to if we don’t figure out how to keep our children from killing each other.” She encouraged the crowd “to help someone along the way.”

The meeting went into a Q and A session. Many of them related to gun control. The state and federal government establish gun rights and regulations. On a local level, they are charged with enforcing those laws, not making them. Mark Scott addressed the fact there is a drug/gang task in the COA. There is also a serious lack of law officers. Scott reports at full staff there should be 44 officers. Currently they are nine officers short of fully staffed. Bryant reports there is a lack in every public safety agency in Sumter County. Pay is an issue, but in a city our size, there is also concern about personal boundaries being crossed. Scott reports it is a statewide situation and in addition to poor pay, they are having to risk their lives and there is an agency always looking to hire. If a local agency can’t be competitive in employee satisfaction, then they are not in a good position to recruit officers.

Walter Knighton was questioned on how long the Sumter County Schools will be in “the bottom academically.” Knighton denied that claim and said he reports out on the academic status of the schools on the regular. He highlighted Ignite CCA as a shining star. Lockhart remarked that SCHS has a high percentage of graduates. They were also questioned on gangs in the school. Knighton said there are “gangs everywhere” to include the school, the private school and the community. He further encouraged citizens to engage in their meetings. After digressing into street paving, Sheriff Bryant suggested more of these types of meetings and/or a pod cast as this one was for public safety. With that, the meeting got back on track to address the public safety needs, with some exceptions.

As the questions continued, LEO had the opportunity to address resources already in the community to include an open relationship between citizens and LEO, how crimes are investigated, how the school provides security, mentoring programs, street cameras, and the limitless possibility of utilizing technology in the criminal justice field.

By way of crime stats, serious crimes are at a 35 year low. This includes aggravated assault which involves a gun or other weapon. While we are sitting at 35 year low in the COA, random gun fire such as drive by, shooting at cars, residences, etc., has increased by 80%.

The One Sumter Summit will be on Friday, 2/3 9am-2pm in the private dining hall at GSW. It will be facilitated by the Fanning Institute. Sumter County Schools will be addressing safety on Thursday, 2/2 at 6:30 in the high school auditorium. The anonymous APD tip line is 229.924.4102. Contact information for elected officials as well as meeting dates are listed on the governing body’s (City of Americus, Sumter County, Sumter Schools) respective website, with meeting times printed in the ATR Community Calendar.