Outgoing Marietta Chief Flynn on policing, race relations and community partnerships

·8 min read

Jan. 29—Outgoing Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn has worked in law enforcement for 48 years, serving as chief in two departments. In the summer of 2020, a year and a half before his retirement, the U.S. saw its largest-ever protest movement. Sparked by several highly publicized police killings of Black people, the movement spread across the entire country and continues to influence politics and race relations today.

As Flynn hangs up his boots, the MDJ sat down with him to get his thoughts on policing, race, and community relations.

"I think we're at a good time right now," Flynn said in the interview. "In that we are getting past, I think we're on the downslope, coming off of two years of pandemic. Coming off a period in which there was a lot of anti-police sentiment and demonstrations and ill feelings toward the police."

Flynn previously worked as chief in Savannah. He's twice been honored as chief of the year by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

Police across the state, he said, need to do a better job of communicating what they do. If the only interactions people hear about are negative, they'll have a negative view of police, he said.

"The wonderful things, the life-saving things that the men and women that wear the uniform do," Flynn said. "And when they rescue people, and they show extra patience and compassion, dealing with people that are very troubled, when we save children, with these kinds of things."

At the same time, every department needs to be better about holding itself accountable, he said.

"We all need to do a better job in the way we accept complaints. And the way we investigate by a professional process," Flynn said.

A fundamental, irresolvable problem for the police, Flynn said, is that they have to enforce laws, and that will always lead to resentment.

"Let's face it, no one likes getting a traffic ticket," Flynn said. "It's embarrassing, it's costly. No one likes getting arrested. ... we are the face of government, we're the ones that have to enforce things."

Race

When it comes to racial disparities, Flynn acknowledged the U.S. still deals with racism, but doesn't believe that police are as responsible as some do.

"I definitely understand it," Flynn said of the Black Lives Matter movement. "There's always been some level of prejudice out there and, you know, it still exists, but on a much smaller level than they (activists) think."

The chief believes many protesters are influenced by a media and educational system that makes them overly jaded about police. He also argued that anti-police activists are a vocal minority, who do not speak for nonwhite communities as a whole. And he blames, in part, the media, saying it tends to divide the public against the police, or white against Black.

MPD has more minority and female officers than ever before. Recruiting, including attracting diverse talent, is not an issue for the department, Flynn said.

"We will not, do not tolerate any form of racism in our officers here. I don't expect anyone who works here to be the perpetrator of racism, or the victim of racism," Flynn said, later adding, "I think, why they come to us is because we have developed a reputation for being welcoming."

Training and use of force

The state government, Flynn said, ought to mandate and fund more training for all officers.

"In the '70s, when I went to the police academy in Florida, it was six months long ... here in Georgia, mandated training right now ... is 10 weeks," Flynn said.

Flynn referenced the killing of Rayshard Brooks at an Atlanta Wendy's, which resulted in the intensification of the protests, the burning of the Wendy's and sinking morale among Atlanta police.

The officer who shot Brooks did so after engaging in a struggle while handcuffing him. Brooks took the officer's taser and fired it at him.

"What I see when I see something like that are not brutal officers, but I see officers who were poorly trained. They shouldn't have lost that fight," Flynn said of the struggle between Brooks and police.

Many use-of-force incidents are the result of someone experiencing mental crises. Flynn has been working with Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan on a bill that would increase resources and support for law enforcement by providing them with more mental health professionals. For certain types of calls, Flynn said, an officer with crisis intervention training should be accompanied by a clinical professional.

Recruiting more mental health professionals also reduces the burden on officers to allow them to focus on serious crimes, Flynn said.

In a way, Marietta has already implemented measures that free up officers, with the Public Safety Ambassador program. The ambassadors, who are uninformed but unarmed, deal with non-dangerous calls such as minor car collisions, or people filing reports of property damage or stolen cars.

Flynn said that these days, some of the biggest issues facing communities are opioid addiction, behavioral mental illness, and homelessness, the last of which is exacerbated by the first two.

"We need to help people, rather than be arresting everybody who is mentally ill, and may not be responsible for some minor crime that they commit," Flynn said.

An effective solution implemented in Cobb, he said, is accountability courts, that offer people a chance to enter treatment programs rather than be prosecuted and have a criminal record.

What is 'community policing?'

Flynn also outlined his vision of "community policing," a phrase often mentioned in debates about policing, but not always well defined.

Flynn sees four aspects of community policing.

The first is to partner with the community, such as churches, schools and businesses, to develop relationships and work together to address crime.

The second is problem-solving — being responsive to residents' concerns, even if they seem trivial. Showing that police care about, say, loud cars without mufflers, will pay dividends down the road.

"If we've satisfied them to the greatest extent that we can, that breeds a lot of goodwill and trust in the police that, you know, we're here to serve them and help them with problems," Flynn said.

The last two aspects, as Flynn sees it, are data-driven policing and being proactive. That includes using past trends to predict where crime is likely to occur, and assigning patrols accordingly.

"This is the piece that can be a little bit controversial about being proactive, is that our policy is, we want our officers to be aggressive, but never abusive," Flynn said. "And that's what being proactive means. We're going to go out there and rattle the bushes and shake doors and confront people that are engaged in suspicious activity, but we're never going to abuse them."

Local issues

Marietta hasn't experienced the same crime increases that other metro Georgia cities have since the start of the pandemic. Still, there are certain things Flynn thinks of that have just been plain odd. He thinks the overall stress of the pandemic has caused people to act out. He saw the same thing when he worked in Miami in the wake of natural disasters.

"Things like domestic violence go up, things like people acting out. ... There's an increase in mentally ill people, people doing bizarre kinds of things that you would not have seen before the disaster."

Last September, a Canton man armed with a bow and arrow carjacked a woman in Atlanta, drove to Marietta and then was stopped by MPD. He tried to fire the weapon at police, and was shot and apprehended by police.

Then, in October, a man stole two axes from a Marietta store and was walking around in the roadway, refusing to comply with commands. MPD shot him with a beanbag shotgun, a less-lethal weapon, to subdue him.

"This is not normal behavior, not even normal criminal behavior," Flynn said.

When it comes to Marietta, Flynn also said he's lucky to have had a public which works with police in solving crimes, and a mayor and City Council that have been supportive over the years.

"You can be the best chief of police for the best police department in the world," Flynn said. "You can't be effective without the support of an elected body. I don't mean the blind support. Yes, they should hold us accountable for what we do. But, you know, you need to partner with them."

Seated in his office, a large MPD badge hung on the wall behind Flynn, listing the values that he said are the foundation of the department — honesty, integrity, respect, loyalty, professionalism and teamwork.

"Police officers are going to find themselves in really difficult situations, situations and things that they've never been trained for, and odd things," Flynn said. "And if you don't know what to do, we tell all of them ... all you have to remember is our core values ... Any combination of those values guide your hand, I ask them rhetorically, 'How far off can you be, in anything you do?'"