A Dunwoody resident called for the creation of a committee to advise on matters of public safety and policing during a May 10 City Council meeting.

Robert Wolford requested the council consider creating a “Public Safety Committee” during the public comment section of the meeting, asking the city to establish a board made up of citizens to advise the council. 

“It is time for the city of Dunwoody to take actions on the complex issues of policing, race relations, community safety, mental health, code enforcement, social justice and other issues directly related to public safety,” Wolford said during the meeting. “Now is the time to establish this forum, open to the public and meeting regularly to discuss, consider and recommend actions that our city can take to improve policing and public safety in Dunwoody.”

After the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests last year, many of Dunwoody’s surrounding communities started social justice or policing commissions in response. Brookhaven started the Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission last September as a way to evaluate city policies and procedures in terms of equity and diversity. Part of its charge involves evaluating policing and use of force within the department. Similarly, Sandy Springs launched a Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce as a way to make recommendations about equity in city government.

Dunwoody has not gone as far as its neighbors, and has not created a board or commission dedicated to social justice. Over the past year, Mayor Lynn Deutsch has expressed concern about systemic racism in healthcare and pledged to make the city’s boards and commissions more diverse. Dunwoody city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher previously stated that since 2019, minority participation on city boards has increased by 200%, but she could not cite exact numbers or provide names. 

In an interview with The Reporter, Wolford said a few things led him to believe a Public Safety Committee might be necessary for the city. He brought up the city’s ongoing litigation with former Dunwoody police officer Roger Halstead. Halstead sued the city in July of 2020 over sexual harassment claims against former Lt. Fidel Espinoza. Espinoza had resigned before Halstead brought the suit.  

Wolford expressed his disappointment in the fact that DPD let Espinoza resign, and said the events of last year, including national protests over Floyd’s murder, and specifically the protests and unrest in Kenosha, WI after the police shooting of James Blake, prompted him to move forward. He said at one point, he asked Chief Billy Grogan directly if he condemned the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who shot and killed two people in Kenosha during the protests following Blake’s death. 

“I texted the mayor and told her that my wife and I had lost confidence in the chief of police,” he said. “She didn’t respond.” 

Boettcher said there have been no significant updates to the lawsuit, and PACER documents confirm that litigation is ongoing. She did not confirm whether the city would actually consider creating a Public Safety Committee, but that the city takes all public comment under advisement. 

A spokesperson for the Dunwoody Police Department provided a comment from Chief Billy Grogan by email. 

“Our department has a long history of working with our community while seeking input and suggestions about how we can better serve the citizens of Dunwoody,” Grogan said. “I am confident the Mayor and City Council will give this suggestion due consideration.”

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan talks with protesters in June 2020.

The DPD declined to comment on whether Grogan condemned the actions of Rittenhouse or not. 

Wolford spoke at at least four City Council meetings in 2020 calling for Grogan’s resignation. He said since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., he’s been thinking more concretely about the creation of a public safety committee. He said in his mind, the committee would run similarly to the Planning Commission, which reviews zoning ordinances and makes recommendations to the City Council. He said any issues with policing could be discussed there.

“It could all be presented there,” he said. “It could be looked at. It could be put on an agenda and discussed.” 

Wolford said the committee could focus on public safety of all kinds, not just when the police are involved. In an email to City Council members that Wolfrod shared with The Reporter, he brought up the recent controversy over deer hunting in Dunwoody. He also said he thought code enforcement could be one of the subjects the committee oversaw. 

“This commission could be working on things from the deer issue, to bow hunting in Georgia, [to] decriminalizing marijuana,” he said. “And saving resources and keeping our police from having to waste their time.”

Wolford said City Council members seemed reluctant to the idea at first, but after speaking with District 2 Councilmember Jim Riticher, he was hesitantly optimistic that the commission could be a possibility. 

“It’s going to get them talking about it,” he said. “I’m hopeful.” 

In an emailed statement, Riticher said while he would look into the possibility of creating such a committee, he didn’t see it happening any time soon.

“I told [Wolford] I would carefully consider the proposal, and would talk about it with my counterparts and with other citizens. Additionally I am looking to see what our neighboring cities are doing in this area,” he said. “Beyond that, it is very early in the process, and I don’t perceive a high level of urgency on this. We have time to make an informed, well-considered evaluation, which is always a good thing.”

During his public comment at the May 10 meeting, Wolford suggested that local activist Lydia Singleton-Wells should be part of the committee. Wells organized Black Lives Matter protests in Dunwoody last year, and previously said she has since become close with the mayor and continues to advise her on matters of social justice. 

Wells said she thinks the committee would be a good step in promoting transparent policing in Dunwoody, but for the committee to work, it would have to be a “racially and politically diverse group of people.” 

“Though I know many officers at DPD who are incredible men of integrity I think it’s important to hold anyone in such a vital community role accountable,” she said in an email. “It is imperative that we put something in place before something happens and not because something happened.”

Wolford said he hoped the creation of the committee would create more transparency for the Dunwoody community in all matters of public safety. 

“I’ll bet you in the end … the police and the council are going to thank us for saving their time and resources by vetting these things out in a commission of community members,” he said. “They’re going to be thanking us for the work we do for free, to help our community have a better public safety environment.” 

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.