Credit: Mike Haskey / Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Columbus police chief and sheriff sparred over jail operations before July standoff, emails show
The city police department and county sheriff’s office disagreed over crime suppression details before the July 16 dispute that sparked a standoff between officers and deputies at the Muscogee County Jail.
Correspondence the Ledger-Enquirer obtained through an open records request included emails between Sheriff Greg Countryman and Police Chief Freddie Blackmon about jail overcrowding and poor communications related to special police operations.
The sheriff complained special crime details crowded the jail, where staff needed advance notice to prepare for an influx of inmates. When police did not call off a July 15 through July 17 operation coordinated with the Georgia State Patrol, despite the sheriff’s request, the jail run by the sheriff’s office changed the inmate booking order.
Instead of first come, first served, deputies’ prisoners were booked first, then state troopers’ and then police officers’.
When a deputy cut in front of police officers on July 16, a police patrol car blocked his car in, and a tense confrontation between deputies and police officers followed, prompting a supervisor to say, “I don’t want a fight.”
The dispute ended when police released their remaining prisoners with a principal summons, requiring the would’ve-been inmates to return to court later this month.
Changing the booking order was how the sheriff’s office dealt with police crime-suppression operations that the sheriff said worsened jail overcrowding when the facility was short staffed.
The jail’s capacity is 1,069.
Countryman said the inmate population in July was well over that, rising to 1,123 after the July 4 weekend and hitting 1,111 in the days leading up to the July 15-17 crime-suppression detail.
The jail was also about 30 people short of a full staff, and the target capacity to fit the available personnel was not 1,069, but around 980, the sheriff said.
On July 3, he sent out a news release saying the jail was over capacity and needed space. He emailed it to Mayor Skip Henderson and Police Chief Freddie Blackmon, stating, “Right now, our inmate population needs to be reduced by 100. As I have requested, we cannot handle any additional operations. We have ceased any we had planned.”
In response to L-E inquiries on the conflict, the sheriff said he also spoke with Henderson and Blackmon about his objections: “I specifically spoke with Chief Blackmon in detail on July 6 regarding my concerns and the possible challenges we may face. I spoke with the mayor regarding the same on July 8. It was to no avail.”
Under normal circumstances, the jail can book a prisoner in 20 to 30 minutes. Police officers waited hours the night of July 15, when the jail booked deputies’ and troopers’ prisoners first.
City correspondence showed that the agencies discussed this jail capacity issue at least three times before, in late December 2021, in January and again in April, when the sheriff was told of upcoming details.
Each time, Countryman complained the special operations were straining the jail’s capacity: “These large-scale operations place my deputies/correctional officers in the direct face of danger,” Countryman wrote the police chief April 13, when invited to join a detail in May.
In late January, he and the chief had a testy exchange over the jail’s refusal to process some police prisoners during an operation with the state patrol. The sheriff had said the detail should be canceled because of a rise in COVID-19 infections.
The police department set up its own booking system for misdemeanor arrests then, because those suspects could be fingerprinted and released with a court summons — without going to jail.
But during that operation, some officers who weren’t involved in the detail took their prisoners to the jail, and the staff rejected them, saying the police department would handle their bookings.
When Blackmon complained the jail wouldn’t process the misdemeanor arrests made by beat officers, the sheriff shot back that he wasn’t given fair notice:
“Please do not give me instructions on how to process folks in our jail due to the lack of your communication... You know as well as I do, any operation of this magnitude should have included communication with the Jail Bureau.”
He later added: “The crux of the matter is, better communication could have made this much smoother on both ends. There was ample time to do so. You communicated with outside agencies and you failed to communicate with your partnering agency next door because, that was the plan in the first place.”
A similar conflict occurred Dec. 28, 2021, when police told Countryman they planned a special New Year’s Eve detail to catch drunk drivers. The sheriff emailed back that same day, saying the jail needed two weeks’ notice to prepare. “Two days is not adequate notice for us to plan for your detail,” he wrote.
Still, the sheriff’s office over those months pursued its own special details coordinated with other agencies, in late January, February and June.
Asked about those efforts, the sheriff replied that they were not “large-scale” operations.
“They focused on targeted, known individuals who were either validated gang members or were considered armed and dangerous. They differ from the large-scale operations that I requested not to happen, during that specific time frame,” Countryman wrote in an email.
“The large-scale operations, like the one that the Columbus Police Department recently held, cast a wide net to make as many arrests as possible, utilizing traffic stops,” he added. “A sudden influx of 50-plus arrests versus four to six, can have a huge impact on an already overcrowded jail... If I can’t house inmates in the Muscogee County Jail, I am empowered to go look for other jails to house what we have. This is very expensive to the taxpayers.”
Blackmon has not responded to L-E questions emailed to him, and has said only that the July 16 jail incident is under investigation. He said the two agencies still work well together.
Countryman detailed the dangers of a crowded jail in his emailed response to the L-E:
“On any given day, we may have two sworn officers responsible for 60-80 inmates,” he wrote. “Their charges range from murder, aggravated assault, to child molestation. There are constant fights in the jail. We do random cell searches to find homemade shanks. Our deputies and correctional officers do not have weapons. Therefore, I have added K-9’s to the Jail Bureau to help with officer safety and inmate compliance.”
The risk of infectious disease also remains high, amid COVID-19, he added:
“When we accept arrestees in the jail, we accept the responsibility for caring for their pre-existing care. Medical inmate costs for taxpayers may exceed $50,000-$100,000 per inmate in some cases. There are many who do not understand the liability and the responsibility that comes with housing an inmate. We are the largest mental health facility within a 100-mile radius... The jail is a city within a city.”
Countryman said he met with the police chief, mayor, city manager and city attorney on July 19, when the agencies agreed to plan future operations with jail capacity in mind.
Of the July 16 confrontation at the jail, the sheriff wrote: “We have all discussed this incident. We have moved on. This has not damaged relationships. Chief Blackmon and I have agreed long before this to work together to get the job done. We will always commit to just that.”
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.