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Troubled Ga. department tries to rebuild

ALBANY, Ga. - Police Cpl. Robert Ponder used to wear his uniform proudly in restaurants on his lunch break. But that changed over the last two years when at least 16 of his fellow Albany officers were dismissed or suspended _ some charged with or convicted of crimes.

The charges ranged from theft to having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

One was convicted of stealing the wallet of a man seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. Another pleaded guilty to offering money to an undercover officer for sex. And yet another was accused of stealing Social Security numbers, using them to open cell phone accounts and running up $5,000 in bills.

The biggest blow came last September when Cpl. Andrew Hayslip, who had a history of domestic violence, drove his patrol car to his son's preschool and shot the 4-year-old boy to death, wounded the boy's mother and killed himself. He did it while in uniform.

Horrified, the city days later forced Police Chief Bobby Johnson into retirement two months early.

So now, Ponder gets his meals at drive-through windows and eats in his cruiser. That way he does not have to hear the all wisecracks about the department's problems.

"The first thing they ask is, `What's wrong with y'all?'" he said. In fact, he said, some burglary victims have been reluctant to allow police into their homes for fear the investigators will filch their remaining valuables.

"We're not all bad guys," said the 35-year-old officer, who has considered resigning out of frustration. "Sometimes the negative publicity puts you in a hole."

Officials in this southern Georgia city of 76,000 hope the worst is over. They have announced plans for an independent probe of the 192-officer department to help restore public trust.

"I see this as a cleansing process," said Mayor Willie Adams. "It's good we identified these problems and are getting them out of the way."

Still unknown is how many officers may be charged as a result of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe launched in May. The agency is looking into allegations that some Albany officers worked part-time jobs during their police shifts.

The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council said it has investigated 70 Albany officers since 1986, most of them since the mid-1990s.

Before the chief was forced out last September, officials found that Johnson had ignored his department's hiring guidelines at least nine times within 18 months. One of the officers Johnson hired, against the recommendations of a police hiring board, was charged with shoplifting last July.

Johnson himself was suspended for five days in 2002 for failing to report a rear-end collision with his police car. The accident went unreported until the other motorist went to the police department two days later to ask for an accident report. By not reporting the accident, Johnson avoided mandatory drug and alcohol tests.

Johnson, who became chief in 1997, is now a part-time criminal justice instructor at Albany State University, teaching police-community relations and police administration. He did not return repeated calls for comment.

Acting Police Chief Bob Boren, a 32-year law-enforcement veteran and a graduate of the FBI's prestigious National Academy, has inherited the task of restoring public confidence. He credits his officers with a nearly 17 percent drop in Albany's crime rate so far this year.

"We've gone through some tough times," said Boren, who was the assistant chief under Johnson. "But we've identified the problems and we've solved them."

Boren's management style has seemed to inspire the officers. Cpl. Rob McAllister, a firearms instructor and member of the SWAT team, said he never saw Johnson around. But with Boren, "You know he's here. You know he's interested in you."

James "Junior" Burgess, the injured motorcyclist whose wallet was stolen, said he has not lost confidence in his police.

"You can't blame everybody because of one bad apple," said the 28-year-old construction worker. "There's always someone who isn't going to be faithful, honest or loyal to their jobs."

McAllister said the department's problems have been frustrating to him and many fellow officers.

"We hired some people who didn't meet the standards and it came back to bite us," he said. "Trust is a hard thing to get and it's even harder to rebuild. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us in regaining that trust."

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