COVINGTON — In April 2017, by a 4-3 consensus, the Covington City Council approved changing the city’s code enforcement officers to POST-certified city marshals and allowed them to carry handguns while performing their duties.
Almost three years later, five of the seven members of that City Council are gone, and the new members are discussing the need for the marshals to carry guns after some residents and business owners have complained about the intimidation factor the marshals have with a gun by their side.
In 2017 the council spent three weeks discussing the issue and heard from the two code enforcement officers on the dangers they faced, as well as the Covington Police Department and the Covington Planning and Zoning Department, under which the city marshals fall. The consensus vote to approve the carrying of weapons was a 3-3 tie, with then-council members Michael Whatley, Ocie Franklin and Hawnethia Williams voting in favor, and Josh McKelvey, Kenneth Morgan and Chris Smith voting against. Mayor Ronnie Johnston broke the tie with a favorable vote.
Fast forward to 2020, and Whatley, Franklin, McKelvey and Smith are gone from the council, with Fleeta Baggett, Anthony Henderson, Don Floyd, and Susie Keck in their places. Johnston is also gone as mayor, with Steve Horton in his place.
The issue came up during the council’s work session on Jan. 14, with new City Manager Scott Andrews noting that with the resignation of one of the city marshals, and with some discussion already about the issue, he felt the time was ripe to get feedback from the current council. Williams was absent from the meeting.
Floyd said while he was campaigning, he heard concerns about the marshals carrying guns from a number of residents.
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me their concerns of the marshals coming in their businesses with their bullet-proof vests and sidearms on their side and walking in with their hand on their gun,” Floyd said. “Everybody knows I was in code enforcement as a fire marshal for 19 years. I never saw a need to have a firearm while inspecting or enforcing the fire codes. If I ever had a problem and needed assistance from law enforcement, they were just as close as the radio that I carried. It is not necessary for the marshals to have firearms in my estimation, and I would like to see that eliminated.”
Morgan recalled voting against it in 2017 and wondered if there is something else that could be done. “As far as I know, there haven’t been any incidents where a weapon has had to be drawn, but I do know that since they have been wearing the weapons, I’ve had some reports from the community about the intimidation factor, of how people feel uncomfortable with a code enforcement officer coming up to them with a weapon on,” Morgan said. “I can understand from the community how they feel about it.
“I guess my whole thing is if there is really a major issue of safety for our code enforcement officers, I would just like to ask what else we can come up with besides a weapon where they will feel safe or wouldn’t feel threatened by anybody they’re faced with? Before we can actually say let’s take their weapons away from them, let’s see what other alternatives we can come up with, and then if we don’t have any other alternatives, then I guess we’ll have to decide if we want them to keep the weapons or not.”
Andrews stated there are benefits for marshals to have firearms, such as not having to pull a police officer from other duties for backup when writing citations. But he added that maybe the city can find a “happy medium” between the marshals being armed and the intimidation factor.
“It doesn’t have to be just a gun (on the hip). It could be concealed on the ankle,” he said. “It could be a polo shirt and khakis to feel less like a certain appearance that gives intimidation. There is middle ground. What I’d like from you is some guidance on that.”
Baggett asked if Newton County code enforcement officers are armed, and the answer was no. She said she’d like to see what the county code enforcement officers do before making a decision.
“I’m kind of on the fence about it,” she said. “I have a problem with them walking into a salon, per se, looking like they’re fixing to go on a tactical drill. But, there are situations where I can see they might be more comfortable with it. I would like to see if there are other options to look at.”
Henderson stated he doesn’t feel a gun is needed to enforce a code.
“It is how you approach individuals and depends on the violation,” he said. “But I personally feel you don’t need a gun to enforce a code. I will say in some cases it can be challenging, but it depends on the individual.”
Keck said she talked to one of the marshals about the issue and learned that they are both trained as police officers and have never had to draw their guns.
“If you look at it from an intimidation standpoint, they’re going out there because somebody is not following the law,” Keck said. “They said the fact that they are armed gives them an identity different than a meter reader. People know that they mean business.
“So I’m going stand on the side of protecting our city employees, because they do go to properties where there could be a gun. Most of the infractions that they are visiting are in neighborhoods that are dangerous.”
Mayor Horton suggested that the council continue its discussion of the issue at their retreat. The council is scheduled to discuss a variety of city matters on Feb. 4-5 at the Georgia FFA-FCCLA Center, 720 FFA FHA Camp Road in Covington.