New Cobb police chief highlights tech, addresses police pay at town hall

·5 min read

Jul. 1—EAST COBB — Cobb County's newest police chief is running a very different department from the one he joined more than three decades ago.

Stuart VanHoozer, confirmed by county commissioners as the new chief of the Cobb County Police Department in May, participated in a meet-and-greet with a dozen or so east Cobb residents during a community meeting at the Mountain View Community Center on Wednesday evening. Invited by Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, VanHoozer and his deputies touted the technology his department leverages, addressed questions concerning officer pay and discussed organized crime and gang activity.

While explaining the use of license plate recognition (LPR) cameras, VanHoozer noted there were significant reductions in most crimes, including homicides, thefts and robberies, in parts of Cobb County where the technology is most utilized. He also discussed how facial recognition technology has helped the department crack cases, citing one homicide that had gone unsolved for four years.

VanHoozer was asked by Richard Durden, president of the Jefferson Township neighborhood homeowner's association, whether Cobb police officers were getting paid enough.

"We have officers over the next three years who will be getting raises," VanHoozer said.

Cobb commissioners said this week their fiscal 2023 budget will include additional raises for public safety employees under the county's step-and-grade program.

VanHoozer also talked about how pay compression, which occurs when veterans of an organization or company get paid similar amounts to newer hires, is something he will work to address so that his department is better able to retain current officers and recruit new ones. VanHoozer said he believes his officers are fairly compensated. That, however, does not mean it has been easy to attract applicants.

"Not a lot of people are applying to be a police officer," VanHoozer said. He identified widespread mistrust of police, not just in Georgia but nationally, as one reason his department had not been receiving many applications.

The town hall was not solely focused on VanHoozer. He introduced and deferred to his command staff throughout the meeting, who spoke about topics audience members identified as most important to them.

Deputy Chief Dan Ferrell, who oversees several units, including the department's full-time gang unit, said police estimate there are more than a million active gang members across the U.S.

"The legalization of marijuana in California drove gangs to Georgia," Ferrell said. According to Ferrell, members will bring marijuana from California to Georgia and exchange it for guns, which Ferrell said are easier to obtain here than in California.

Working with police in L.A., as well as using tools like facial recognition technology, "we can track people committing crimes all the way back across the country," Ferrell said.

Cobb police have used the facial recognition technology under a free trial from Clearview AI, but county commissioners tabled a request from the department earlier this month to sign a full-term contract with the firm.

Durden, the homeowner's association president, told the Journal after the meeting he came to hear VanHoozer and his leadership team and to show support for Cobb police.

"I think there needs to be more engagement from the community," Durden said. "We all live in this community, we're all responsible for it ... If we want to have a community we enjoy, it's got to be protected."

VanHoozer is responsible for leading a department of over 700 officers across more than 30 units. He has been with the department for 32 years and most recently served as a deputy police chief under former Chief Tim Cox.

VanHoozer told the MDJ that he believes in the benefits of leniency for non-violent drug offenders. He expressed support for programs that allow people charged with non-violent drug crimes to have their full civil rights restored, so long as they follow whatever guidelines the court lays out.

"We strongly support what I would call restorative justice," VanHoozer said. "You can make a mistake, and we're here to support these programs that help you be restored to where you were before without having an unforgivable blemish on your record."

VanHoozer also noted that he and his officers "don't really make cases on" misdemeanor marijuana offenses, instead focusing on drug distribution and "the commercial exploitation of children and youth for profit."

"We focus our resources on those more serious drug offenses," VanHoozer said.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade has raised the question of how new abortion laws will be enforced. Asked by the MDJ about Georgia's pending abortion restrictions, VanHoozer said he has not spoken with local or state prosecutors about the role police would play in enforcement.

"We have not actually imagined that we might be called for actually prosecuting" abortions, VanHoozer said, noting it is "probably something we need to talk about."

The department has, however, taken some steps in the wake of the decision.

"We are sensitive to the reaction to the decision [overturning Roe vs. Wade]," VanHoozer said, "and we have taken some steps, what we call zone patrol [of] areas that might be affected by the decision itself. For example, we know people have protested at certain government facilities, judges' homes, family planning facilities, so we have been cognizant of that."

When asked about his personal philosophy as chief, VanHoozer said he's focused on treating people fairly and upholding the highest standards of policing.

"If you want to look at everything that's been said against the police for the last seven years, what most Americans want us to do is treat them fairly. That's it," VanHoozer said. "Be good people and treat people fairly."

VanHoozer said he's "always considered Cobb home." He and his wife Leslie attended Floyd Middle School and South Cobb High School, and raised their three sons here.