Georgia County to Craft Policy Around Encrypted Police Radios

One of the roughly $5,000 radios was given to a Varnell tow truck company by the police chief, sparking debate about how the new system is to be used and who should have access to it.

by Chris Whitfield, The Daily Citizen / June 6, 2019

(TNS) — After Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant provided a county-owned, encrypted radio to a private business, Whitfield County Emergency Management Director Claude Craig said he is developing guidelines for the use of those radios by the county’s municipalities.

“They are proprietary public safety radios, and that is all they are to be used for,” Craig said. “They are not to be used for any private use whatsoever.”

Grant's providing a radio to Bob Cummings, owner of Bob’s Wrecker Service in Dalton, was investigated first by the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office and then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. District Attorney Bert Poston presented evidence to a grand jury concerning possible felony theft by taking but the grand jury chose not to indict Grant.

One of the things cited by Poston as “particularly significant” was that there was no policy concerning the radios among the county and the cities of Cohutta, Tunnel Hill and Varnell.

“There was not a memorandum of understanding or interagency agreement between the entities,” Poston said. “That is something that probably should be looked into.”

County Board of Commissioners Chairman Lynn Laughter said the guidelines will establish rules that should have been understood when the radios were given to the police departments of the three municipalities.

“I don’t think in anyone’s imagination that anyone thought one of those expensive radios would have been given away to anyone,” Laughter said. “Absolutely those radios were just to be used for public safety agencies. All of the board is aware of the issue, and you would think people would think twice before loaning out a radio.”

Grant said after the investigations began that Bob’s Wrecker Service is the only wrecker service on call for the city when wrecks occur.

“I did not intend to violate any laws or policies,” Grant said in March. “I only intended to benefit the city of Varnell. When we would have an accident, he would be alerted to it a little bit quicker (with the radio). He would hear when we have a wreck here in Varnell and dispatch a wrecker here a little bit quicker.”

The radios were paid for by Whitfield County as part of an upgrade to an all-digital communications system for law enforcement personnel, firefighters and other first responders. The system was paid for with money from a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). Each radio is valued at more than $5,000.

“This was a Tier 1 project for the county (under the SPLOST), and those radios belong to Whitfield County,” Commissioner Harold Brooker said. “They are for law enforcement and firefighter and government issue. We want to put it in writing and that way there is no question of their use.”

Craig said he will have an intergovernmental agreement for the commissioners to approve as quickly as possible. He said when the use of the radio by the wrecker service became known, there was a full accounting of other radios in use by agencies outside of the county.

“I touched base with Cohutta and Tunnel Hill and made sure that they are keeping up with all of their stuff,” Craig said. “There has been no other unauthorized use that has been brought to my attention. We will have the agreements that explain that the radios are for the use of the cities, but there are things you can and can’t do with them.

“It was kind of an unstated knowledge that we were on a private, public safety communication system and this is what we will use them for,” he said. “If I had it to go over again, I would have implemented an IGA (intergovernmental agreement) at that time. I didn’t deem it necessary, and we haven’t had any issues except for this one time with this one agency.”

©2019 The Daily Citizen (Dalton, Ga.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.