published Sunday, July 1st, 2012

LaFayette chiefs plan improvements

Fire Chief Robert Busby, left, stands in front of a fire engine at the LaFayette Public Safety Department on Friday. At right, LaFayette Police Chief Bengie Clift talks with the Times Free Press at his office. The former Public Safety Department has recently been split into separate fire and police departments.
Fire Chief Robert Busby, left, stands in front of a fire engine at the LaFayette Public Safety Department on Friday. At right, LaFayette Police Chief Bengie Clift talks with the Times Free Press at his office. The former Public Safety Department has recently been split into separate fire and police departments.
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. -- To city police Chief Bengie Clift, part of community policing is visiting schools, talking with the cafeteria workers, walking the downtown square and listening to residents.

He said that, in the last few years, the LaFayette Police Department has moved away from being submerged in the community and involved with the public outside enforcing the law.

"I've got to get us back to having more empathy," he said. "We can't get too big for our britches."

Clift was promoted June 18 to replace recently fired Public Safety Director Tommy Freeman. He said he has several major goals, including new policies requiring officers to visit schools and to promote policing on foot outside their patrol cars.

Clift and Fire Chief Robert Busby were promoted after Freeman was fired for employee retaliation, public tirades and losing the trust of city officials. City Manager Frank Etheridge proposed splitting the public safety department into fire and police departments, and the City Council unanimously approved the decision.

Instead of posting the jobs to the public, Etheridge hired from within, saying both men had 14-plus years experience with the department and would help morale.

A concern in splitting the departments was paying two high salaries, but Etheridge said he wouldn't pay two safety director salaries. Clift's salary is $59,904 annually, and Busby's is $42,785. Freeman was paid $74,776 annually.

Some employees say they appreciate the decision to split the departments so people with the proper training and experience lead their departments.

"It's going to help our department as a whole," said firefighter Matthew Overby.

Busby, who was the former captain, has plans to improve the city's Insurance Services Office rating from a 6 to a 4, which could lower the cost of homeowners insurance.

It's been 20 years since the department's level of protection was rated, Busby said. In the next year, he will work to have a state survey of manpower and water supply and to scour through training records, pump and hose tests and other safety features.

On the police side, Clift, who was second in command under Freeman, already was responsible for much of the day-to-day operations within the department. He said he noticed a shift in morale under Freeman and is working to improve the station's environment.

Another change began last year when Clift proposed implementing an e-ticket system that will print tickets instantly and provides other paperless functions. Clift said he hopes this will cut down on paperwork and save money in the long run.

Six patrol cars already have the hardware installed, but he is proposing eight more to be installed in next year's budget, which begins Oct. 1. Each system for the cars costs $2,500.

And when school starts, Clift plans to begin organizing police-sponsored events for the community in the public housing area.

"The key to community [policing] starts with school systems, and it starts with public housing," he said.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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