The January 25th Sunday edition of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer included an interview with Marshal Greg Countryman by Chuck Williams. I have reconciled myself to the fact that these Sunday interviews are a good place to find personal interest information and the opinions of our local movers and shakers, but sometimes the actual facts fall to the wayside in these friendly conversations presented for our entertainment. Normally it just leaves me shaking my head and a little disappointed, but this past Sunday interview went so far beyond the pale that I felt it required a response.
In the interview, Marshal Countryman discussed many aspects of his personal and professional life. It was what he “shared” about the function of his office and the role it plays in our community that is of concern to me. I will reference the online version of the interview here and address my concerns in the same sequential order as the article.
I am certainly no expert on constitutional law, but one of the first things the marshal said in this interview made my constitutional radar start beeping. Countryman said the following about the evictions his office oversees:
“We walk into evictions, and based on our training, we know that this may be a meth lab or marijuana growth lab, or it may have something in it that may interest another agency. So, we’ve had other agencies to come in because we look at the mail people leave, so it’s a good tool for us to create a database.”
So I am asking this as a genuine question that I hope someone with more legal veritas than myself can answer…can he do that? It seems to me that using a process that has no criminal implications as an opportunity to go through someone’s things without a warrant has some serious Fourth Amendment problems. Not to mention the fact that the marshal feels like he needs a drone to surveil the locations before evictions are served. Again…can he do that? It sounds to me like he is surveilling private property with out a warrant. The people he is so intent on spying on have committed no crime other than being unable to keep a roof over their head…is that just me or does that sound like open season on these folks right to privacy?
The next thing that caught my attention was Marshal Countryman speaking of using evictions as “shoot/no shoot” training exercises:
“Marshal deputies do more building clearing than anybody in the city. It’s a good training tool for “shoot, don’t shoot,” if you will, because when we go do an eviction, the landlords can’t go into the house.
We have to go into that house to render that dwelling safe. So, that means we have to take out our weapons, we have to hold traffic on the radio, we have to go in and clear every room and render that dwelling safe, and then we can let the landlord know it’s safe to come in.”
Now call me a stickler, but I think I would rather have those marshal deputies trained BEFORE they enter the real world with real bullets and perform real evictions. Not to mention the liability the marshal has now opened the city up to by stating he is using real-world situations as “training.” I hope it just came across this way and is an exaggeration, but it sounded as though these marshal deputies are going into every eviction with their guns drawn. Does a police officer draw their gun everytime they enter a structure that is unknown to them? I understand that the deputies have a very difficult and dangerous job, but I am appalled at the idea of families being turned into the street at the end of a marshal’s gun. I hope the Marshal will be forthcoming in a clarification on that matter.
Williams goes on to ask Marshal Countryman if he sees the marshal’s office as being on par with the sheriff and the chief of police:
[Williams]: Of the three law enforcement agencies in the county — marshal, sheriff and police department — you’re far and away the smallest, right?
[Williams]: You are elected, the sheriff is elected, police chief is appointed by council. As a leader of a law enforcement agency, are you on par with the chief of police and the sheriff?
[Countryman]: Yes. Yes, I am.
[Williams]: Why do you say that?
[Countryman]: Because the chief tells me constantly, “If you ever need anything, give me a call.” If I ever needed something I could call Chief (Ricky) Boren. He has never said no to anything that I’ve asked for. And understand, Chuck, we complement each other. With the chief, the sheriff and myself, experience alone is almost 100 years. So, there is an inner genius in everybody. There is a different experience level in everybody. So, sometimes I can pick up the phone and ask the chief about a certain procedure that I’m not familiar with.
Ummmm…is it possible that Marshal Countryman didn’t think he would actually have to justify that statement once he made it? I mean, seriously…He is on par with the chief of police because the chief tells him to call if he needs anything? OK. That just doesn’t pass muster with me. The marshal’s mandate is limited to the precepts and jurisdiction of the Municipal Court. Period. The chief is responsible for the entire county as is the sheriff, who is primarily responsible for running the jail. I’m willing to listen to an argument containing some legitimate reasons he is on par with the chief and the sheriff, but I certainly didn’t hear any in this intrview.
Then the conversation moved to the subject of who the marshal’s “boss” is:
[Williams]: As an elected official, who is your boss?
[Countryman]:The citizens of Columbus and the governor of this state.
Well…that is sort of correct, but not quite. The marshal is directly answerable to the citizens of Columbus, as his post is an elected one. The marshal’s office was created by Local Law (the way things got done back in the day), which has evolved into the city council, to serve the Municipal Court, so he is answerable to those entities, as well. And in the very limited aspect that the marshal’s office plays a role in general public safety, he is answerable to the Mayor in her role as Public Safety Director. But the Governor? Where does it say the Columbus marshal reports to the governor?. Where does it say the marshal should be reporting to ANYONE outside this county? I mean, I can understand if there was some sort of apocalyptic situation in Columbus and the state government had to come in and take over, but as a matter of daily function it seems highly implausible to me that the marshal reports to the governor.
After some discussion on Countryman’s faith and his decision to run for his office, the conversation drifts back towards the function of the marshal’s office and the type of cars required. Marshal Countryman seems to think his deputies should be driving police cruisers just like law enforcement officers whose primary responsibility is patrol. The marshal’s office evicts people and serves summons. How many high-speed chases does that result in? How often do they have to transport people who need to be secured? Marshal Countryman’s reasoning for providing his officers with fully-equipped cruisers seems to be that all the *other* kids have them. Sorry, sir. I’m going to need a little more than that and the remote possibility that the police and the sheriff’s deputies need you to help them perform their duties. I am all for yall having something that looks cool with a little get-up-and-go and a tricked-out paint job, but let’s be realistic about what you need to perform your duties. I just think a patrol cruiser and all that upkeep is a little over-the-top for the mandate and duties of the marshal’s office, and a terrible waste of the people’s money.
Chuck Williams and Marshal Countryman then engage in some discussion of marriage, and awkwardly tried to apply that concept to Countryman’s relationship to the mayor. It was weird and *ewww*. I honestly don’t know what either one of them were thinking with that.
And then there is the flat-out misstatements of fact that Countryman made, which seemed to be a backhanded way to imply malfeasance. Really, just INEXCUSABLE for any servant of the people to willfully mislead the public into believing that a fellow civic servant has not protected the public good. I’m really glad that the mayor’s office released a statement about three of the most egregious statements he made. In short, Countryman had alleged that the OLOST funds had been designated by council for law enforcement and public safety only and that those funds had been misdirected to other areas of the budget. That is simply, demonstrably untrue. “By virtue of state law, OLOST money is General Fund money (unlike SPLOST money which is restricted money),” Tomlinson wrote in her response,
“It is received into the General Fund and resides there until appropriated by Council. If it is not appropriated by Council, it remains in the General Fund Reserve and may not by ‘shifted’ around on threat of possible criminal enforcement.”
Countryman also alleged that the city has not shown transparency in the management of those funds and called for at least a quarterly review. Whoops. Those funds are posted publicly once a month and audited. And also a report on them is read to council once a month. And council meetings are televised. But other than that….total lack on transparency.
Countryman also implied that LOST funds were being used in ways that benefitted certain facilities instead of public safety. Again…just flat out WRONG. The monies that Countryman was referring to are $3000 stipends, that council approved under Jim Wetherington, so that the prisoner crews on detail at those facillities had a guard who was POST-certified to carry a weapon. But that didn’t keep Countryman from making this statement:
“But, we haven’t been able to dream because now the Civic Center is getting part of the LOST, METRA, Parks and Recreation is getting it. So, the number of people that receive the LOST who benefit from it has spread.”
Finally. let me just point out a few things that seemed to be glaringly obvious in the overall tone and substance of this interview. First of all, Marshal Countryman brags on how much work he has done to modernize the marshal’s office on one hand (and I guess *that* money had to come from somewhere), then turns around and drybegs on the other hand because he wants the same equipment that the police and sheriff’s office have…regardless of whether or not there is a realistic need for it in his realm of responsibility. Secondly, the interview left me with the disturbing feeling that the marshal doesn’t have a real good handle on how municipal finance works, and maybe that helps explain why he is wasting the people’s money on this frivolous lawsuit. Even more disturbing is that he clearly hasn’t seen the need to consult with anyone who *does* know something about municipal finance so that some of his misconceptions could have been cleared up before this interview. There is nothing quite as dangerous as someone who doesn’t even know what they don’t know. And lastly, Marshal Countryman does seem like a really nice, well-intended guy. And I give it up to those who step forward to serve their community as he has done. Nice and good-intentions can’t replace good management, though, and now I have concerns regarding just that about our marshal’s office.
When contacted to respond to the mayor’s clarification of his misstatements, Countryman simply said,
“I’m not going to comment on anything the mayor has to say. It was my interview and I said what I had to say then.”