The email sent within the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office on a recent Thursday morning was loud and clear: In the event of an emergency, don’t call on the Dahlonega City Marshal’s Office first.
It’s a message that marked an apparent shift in the way downtown law enforcement has been handled during business hours over the past months. And Sheriff Stacy Jarrard said he’s hoping it’s not a permanent change.
“They were assisting us,” he said. “I appreciate all the work they were doing.”
Jarrard said his office made the change after receiving a City of Dahlonega email on January 30.
“The email I got was until further notice they would not be able to respond to anything but minor traffic violations,” he said.
Recently the Dahlonega City Marshal’s Office, composed of two full-time officers, has provided a highly visible law enforcement presence on the square and is often the first on the scene for 911 calls in the district.
“During Marshal [Jeff] Branyon’s most recent Council report, he noted that he and his staff have responded to a total of 461 calls to 911 during calendar year 2019,” stated an email from Mayor Sam Norton.
The department has expanded considerably since it was reinstated in 2017.
This year the city’s Public Safety budget is set at over $411,300. That’s an increase from the original budgeted total of just over $332,400 for the fiscal year of 2019.
“We, the City, are taking the time to reevaluate the role of the Marshal’s Office in relationship to long-term revenue projections and based on the data collected in our first two years of reinstating the Marshal’s Office,” stated Norton in an email. “… We believe it is necessary to make sure we aren’t setting community expectations that in the long-run we may not be able to financially fulfill.”
Recently Jarrard has jumped at the chance to work with two fully trained officers downtown during business hours.
“The days and hours they were working they were assisting us with all calls [in the city],” he said. “That way I was able to free up a deputy [from the downtown] to help work the county. I think it was great for the residents of the county. And it was a valued resource to us even if it was just Monday-Friday 8-to-5.”
When contacted by The Nugget over the phone, Norton said the role of the Marshal is not necessarily the same as the LCSO.
“The Marshal’s primary responsibility is to enforce parking and traffic and city ordinances and to assist the Sheriff,” he said. “It’s just hard to assist when there are two people.”
When The Nugget asked if the city had made any official change in the Marshal's law enforcement policy, Norton said no.
“The Marshal hasn’t been reduced in his scope,” he said. “He is still authorized to enforce and can enforce all laws.”
However, the January 30 email sent by Branyon to Jarrard seemed to indicate a definite shift.
“Until further notice, the Dahlonega Marshal’s Office will only make arrests in cases of DUI alcohol or other extreme situations,” stated the email. “Our focus will be on traffic violations, code enforcement and parking. Other cases requiring arrests must be made by other agencies.”
This email was obtained through an Open Records Request made by The Nugget to the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office.
“I apologize for any inconvenience this [may] create,” concluded Branyon in the email. “Please feel free to call me if you have any questions.”
That email resulted in another email, sent minutes later from LCSO Major Doug Cochran, to deputies and staff.
It began with “City Marshal Office new policy” in the subject line.
“Effective immediately, all calls for service within the city will be dispatched to the Sheriff’s units on duty until further notice,” stated the email.“We will not dispatch calls for service to the City Marshal Office.”
CALLS FOR CLARIFICATION
After receiving the emails as the result of the Open Records Request, The Nugget again contacted city officials to ask for clarification of what appeared to be a contradiction.
“I do not view this as contradictory,” responded City Manager Bill Schmid via email. “… After learning of the high call volume the Marshal’s office covered in 2019, I made a short term administrative policy decision in consultation with the Mayor, City Attorney and Marshal. This will allow us to focus on the original mission of traffic enforcement, parking management and code enforcement, while strategically planning and executing an appropriate and financially sustainable approach to growing this very high capability department over time.”
Branyon was at an out-of-town conference on Monday but was able to answer emailed questions from The Nugget.
“We’re focused on ensuring we are not duplicating services and that we’re concentrating our efforts on the Marshal’s core responsibilities of code enforcement, parking management and traffic enforcement,” he stated. “We will continue to offer emergency support to local law enforcement as practical.”
He declined to share his personal opinion regarding the matter.
“I don’t have comment in terms of an opinion because it’s not my role to develop policy as a public servant,” he replied. “I implement it.”
Jarrard said he’s hopeful that the City Marshal’s Office will some day be back on the dispatch beat.
“I hope it can get back to that,” said Jarrard. “…They are a great resource with great individuals that work there. And I valued their assistance.”
Meanwhile Norton said he sees room for both agencies to operate in Dahlonega in differing roles.
“The sheriff doesn’t do parking and city ordinances,” he said. “So there’s no redundancy there.”
And in the event of a call for emergency assistance?
“We’ll all come,” he said. “Put your hamburger down and take off. And it’s always going to be that way.”