Under the proposed change, personnel with law enforcement responsibilities would either continue to work under the DNR’s Wildlife Resources division or move to a newly created law enforcement section. Should the Board of Natural Resources approve the measure, the move would take effect July 1, with the measure being phased in over five years.
“The current system that we have now was basically put in place by then Gov. Jimmy Carter back in the ’70s when he reorganized state government,” said DNR Capt. Johnny Johnson. “That’s the model we have been operating under all of these years. Through the course of time, the department had developed about five different law enforcement units or sections providing services under the DNR umbrella. Of course, each one of these sections had different supervisors, they answered to different people and had different policies, different training and all of those issues.”
Johnson, who oversees law enforcement for Region 1 over northwest Georgia, said the move will have personnel under one system.
“It simplifies and consolidates delivery of law enforcement services to the public and creates a better chain of command, and will allow the people providing law enforcement to focus on that, you know, that expertise,” he said. “It will standardize the organizational structure in the department as far as policies and procedures and reporting and the coordination of law enforcement personnel and all those things. And it reduces the duplication of services that we have been doing over the years.”
Employees with law enforcement capabilities are found in Wildlife Resources and that division’s game management section, fisheries, and parks and historic sites.
DNR Deputy Commissioner Homer Bryson called the move “nothing new,” saying the agency analyzed setups from departments across the Southeast.
“[There are] a number of reasons for it. Internally ... about three years ago within the wildlife resources division, we did an eight-month study and looked at our fisheries and wildlife technicians who are considered deputy conservation rangers, which are the same as a park ranger, and within the division went to a transition class very similar to what we are doing here to transition those technicians out of law enforcement responsibilities so that they could devote 100 percent of their time to resource management,” he explained. “[The process] worked extremely well there, and this is sort of the next step within that transition process within our agency.”
Johnson added, “A lot of those who worked in [the game management] section have already transitioned over into the law enforcement section. There’s still a few out there who have decided to stay through, you know, the deadline that was set, and that’s in about five years. They’re just going to stay where they’re at and just retire on out without transitioning out.
“By 2018, everyone who wears a badge or a gun will be working for a colonel under the law enforcement division.”
The reorganization will produce a more efficient department, allowing personnel to focus solely on either law enforcement or resource management responsibilities.
“You have 200 law enforcement, full-time officers now that — conservation rangers, commonly called game wardens — that they will remain in that capacity,” Bryson said. “We started this transition within our wildlife resources division; there were about 80 of those technicians that had law enforcement responsibility. In the three years [since that transition began], about 50 percent of those have transitioned out of law enforcement or else transferred over into law enforcement.
“In parks, you currently have 86 officers, or park rangers, with law enforcement responsibilities, so over the next five years, they will have the decision to make as to where they want to be within the organization, whether it be law enforcement or in parks.”
The move, he said, will not affect the DNR financially.
“This is an internal reorganization. It is not a downsizing. It’s not a budget increase or a budget decrease really,” Bryson said, adding that additional training also will not be required. “They’ve already received the training, attended our conservation ranger school.
“In fact — that’s a very good point — ... to train and equip a law enforcement officer costs us, their first year on the job, about $100,000. So, if you look at efficiency, if you are going to make that large of an investment in an individual, do you want that person devoting 100 percent of their time to law enforcement or, as some, it’s probably 10 percent of their time?”
The creation of the new law enforcement sector impact on local law enforcement agencies is expected to be nonexistent.
“One of the things we did, we looked at the activities that happen on those state-owned properties,” Johnson said. “... We looked at what kind of violations were happening there, what kind of complaints, and to start with the criminal element, whoever that may be, a lot of those folks don’t go to state parks. They don’t like witnesses to crime. Most of these places you have to pay to get and pay to do this and ... there are some things that happen on state parks, but we don’t see a large criminal element on state parks.
“The more significant crimes that happen there, the local law enforcement agencies are typically called anyway. A large portion of the violations that take place on state parks are very minor things. ... Rangers will be patrolling those areas as part of their regular course of business, and most certainly, if there is an issue, an ongoing issue, we are going to address it.”
The proposed changes are open for public comment through 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, June 18. Residents wishing to comment may call the DNR commissioner’s office at 404-656-3500; email Bryson at email@example.com; or mail the comment to his attention, 2 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive S.E., Suite 1252 — East Tower, Atlanta, GA 30334. The comments will be considered and a presentation made during a public hearing before the board at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro at 9 a.m. June 25. The board will then take the matter as an action item to consider.