South Fulton approves lease-purchase of armored truck

South Fulton approves lease-purchase of armored truck

SOUTH FULTON, Ga. — The City of South Fulton may be one step closer to getting an armored SWAT vehicle for its police department following a tense meeting Tuesday.

The South Fulton city council agreed in a 6-1 vote to allow its department to explore a lease-purchase option for a “Bearcat” model vehicle.

But with a price tag nearing $400 thousand, this wasn’t a move that went without a fair amount of grilling from councilmembers looking at where the money would come from.

The money was initially set to come from the estimated departmental savings, but some on the council were concerned about making that kind of purchase on speculative funds that may not be there.

“Before we spend the money that we hope that we have, on things that we haven’t purchased yet, I think that it would be fiscally sound to make sure we’ve colored all of our bills from 2019,” Khalid Kamau said.

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He also pointed out that calls from his own constituents suggested that there may be a better use for the cash in the department. Kamau sited long wait-times for police response – sometimes up to two hours later.

“I think that we should be spending it on improving our response times, on hiring detectives to close cases and not just right up cases – that people feel like they don’t get called back,” he said. “I just think there is so many other things that we need to be spending the money one – if we even have it.”

Chief Meadows admitted that getting the staffing numbers up for the department was still part of the plans, and another city official detailed exactly how that could happen in tandem with this purchase.

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“The chief knows and understands that he cannot hire all of those officers today, so he basically has until the mid-year budget to fill his positions,” city manager Odie Donald II said. “Because he can’t hire them on day one, on day one he starts accumulating cost savings. Those cost savings will be leveraged to add additional officers to his budget at the midyear budget adjustment.”

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Rosie Jackson suggested the possibility of an intergovernmental agreement in lieu of actually purchasing the large and expensive vehicle.

Meadows alluded to difficulty getting such an agreement set up in Atlanta, or with Fulton County Police. He said that Atlanta, though having two such vehicles, would likely not send their vehicle without their own officers to crew it, putting the operation in their hands.

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And the situation with the county police department seemed to be much more tied with other unspoken disagreements between the two agencies – possibly including previously-announced plans by the city to sue the county for control of facilities and parks. 

Whatever the specific cause of the bad blood, the aftermath surfaced during an emotional plea by Councilwoman Helen Willis at Tuesday’s meeting.

She pointed out that an agreement with the county shouldn’t be necessary because the armored truck was allegedly bought with FEMA funds. But she said a recent incident showed it wouldn’t be a simple process.

“And we had to go through hell and high water to get it,” she said in regard to trying to get a command center at a “chop shop” investigation in her district.

“And our officers slept in 90-degree heat and in their cars for two days because they couldn’t leave the crime scene,” she said.

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She said she could understand why the chief was “aggressive” in getting the vehicle.

“Now, we want them to protect us, but they can’t protect us if they can’t protect themselves,” she said.

The mayor himself also chimed in earlier in the discussion. He added that the vehicle isn’t technically a “military vehicle” or a “tank,” despite previous claims. But he added it could allow officers the time they need to de-escalate a situation or save lives.

“… that gunman is still at-large and you don’t know where he is, they’re not coming to get you in a Dodge,” Mayor Bill Edwards said, regarding a hypothetical shooting injury. “They’re coming to get you in an armored vehicle that can take on fire, that can pull you out and take you to wherever you need to go.”

Still, another member of the council stressed that the use for the money should go toward hiring more officers.

“We just had a beat study that said we need at least two new officers per beat,” he said.

And Councilman Kamau reiterated that bringing in more officers would help create a safer community for residents – especially at area parks where there are often massive gatherings.

He added that his residents were merely asking that “when things happen in their house, that people show up in less than an hour.”

Chief Meadows ultimately suggested the lease-purchase option to be paid out of seized funds. Council members later agreed to the idea with varying degrees of leniency.

“Was going to put that aside for training for our officers,” Chief Meadows said. “But certainly councilwoman Willis just hit it on the head – if they’re not safe, training is an afterthought.”

In the motion to authorize the police to “explore a lease-purchase on the purchase of a bearcat and to defer the cost until the next fiscal year,” all but Councilman Kamau voted in favor.

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