Frequent misbehavior by Camden deputies leads to dropped insurance coverage

Timothy Bessent, Sr., president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP, speaking at a press conference on Nov. 16, 2022, regarding the beating of Jarrett Hobbs by jailers in the Camden County Detention Center. Credit: NAACP Camden County GA Facebook page

Repeated instances by Camden County deputies of jailhouse violence, car accidents and other misbehavior have prompted the insurance company that covers local law enforcement to end its coverage.

As a result Camden taxpayers will have to swallow the cost of rising premiums that will likely double in the upcoming fiscal year from the $700,000 annual premiums previously charged to the county, according to Mike Spiers, human resources director for the Camden government. 

The Camden County Sheriff’s Office faces 15 active claims stemming from incidents over the last two years whereby deputies have displayed malpractice against detainees at the jail, crashed their service cars and damaged property after using controversial PIT maneuvers during high-speed chases, Spiers said. The majority of the claims came from incidents at the jail, he said.

On May 8, The Travelers Companies, Inc., notified Camden County that it would no longer provide insurance coverage for policing and automobile liability.

The county is now shopping around for a new insurance plan while trying to negotiate new coverage with Travelers, Spiers said. Whatever the outcome, premiums are  “easily going to double,” he said. The county will also likely have to pay tens of thousands more per claim before insurance will kick in, Spiers said. 

Coverages for the county’s other liabilities, like property and medical malpractice insurance, are unaffected by the change.

The development is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the Camden County Sheriff’s Office. Last year it faced increased scrutiny for allegedly discriminatory and violent traffic stops and made national news for brutal use of force on detainees in the jail. Five deputies have been arrested or indicted in three separate use of force incidents in the past year. 

Of the 150 total funded positions at the agency – including patrol and the jail – there are 54 vacancies. More than half of the jail’s positions are vacant, which has led to overworked deputies short on training, experience and patience, said Sheriff Jim Proctor. That, combined with deplorable jail conditions and low pay created the conditions for lower standards, according to Proctor. 

“I hate that these things are happening. We’re doing our best to provide corrective measures,” Proctor said. He said he is requiring 20 more hours of mandatory training for new jailers and deputies as well as reviewing policies. 

Low pay for jailers

Municipal and county governments routinely carry large insurance policies in case of claims of liability. Proctor characterized some of the current claims against the county as nuisance suits by people who are “just looking for money.” 

Meanwhile, the sheriff says that funding to increase salaries for jailers has disappeared from the draft budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2024 budget. The pay raise will help with filling necessary positions, he said, and reduce jail violence.

Proctor says that basic safety equipment to keep the jail in working order is often unbudgeted or hard to come by due to bureaucratic hurdles placed by the Board of Commissioners.

County Manager Shawn Boatwright says that pay raises for sheriff’s deputies are still under discussion for the budget that will be finalized by July 1, the start of the state’s fiscal year.

“The salaries that the Sheriff’s Office requested are still up for consideration as they were part of his budget request to the Board for Fiscal Year 2024,” Boatwright said in an email. 

The problem is the culture, NAACP says

The Camden County chapter of the NAACP has revealed a pattern of misconduct at the Sheriff’s Office in the last year. 

Its president, Timothy Bessent, said the central problem with the department is the workplace culture, rather than a lack of funding or staff.  

“It has become the culture at the Camden County Sheriff’s Office because of the lack of accountability,” Bessent said. He said comprehensive change won’t happen until the department is held accountable and then takes steps to reform.

The Sheriff’s office department has addressed several high-profile violent incidents only after the NAACP made them public and news outlets reported on them. 

For example, last summer after The Current reported on a controversial traffic stop by Camden County deputies, the NAACP looked into one of the deputies’ backgrounds and discovered she was involved in a use of force incident in a separate traffic stop. 

Dash camera video from January 2022 showed former Deputy Christi Newman pulling a handcuffed woman by her hair and slamming her into a police cruiser. Her supervisor suspended her for two days.

But the local district attorney opened an investigation after the NAACP brought the newly-found video to him in September 2022. Months later, a grand jury indicted Newman on charges related to excessive force and lying on a police report, and the sheriff’s office fired her.

Claims could lead to change

Spiers, the HR manager, expects any new insurance agreement to require “assurances” that the county and the sheriff are changing their operations and procedures. 

“They’re gonna want to see policy changes within the jail specifically, because that’s where most of these liability claims have come from,” Spiers said. 

County Commissioner Jim Goodman said the excessive claims against the sheriff’s office concern him as both a taxpayer and elected official.

“Calamities happen. That’s a given,” Goodman said. “You don’t have to help them happen.”