Forsyth police chief leaving for new job

Police Chief John Clifton is leaving Forsyth, but not directly due to the recent change in the city's leadership, he said.

Clifton said Tuesday that he has agreed to accept a position as a major and assistant chief with the new Johns Creek Police Department in north Fulton County.

"I received the offer on Jan. 7 and turned in my resignation Jan. 9," he said. His final day as Forsyth chief will be Jan. 23, and he will begin work in Johns Creek immediately after that.

There had been speculation since November's election when the incumbent mayor and three city council members were all defeated that the new council would move quickly to replace Clifton and perhaps other city department heads. And at the new council's first meeting on Jan. 2, two of the new councilmen, James Calloway and Melvin Lawrence, proposed a 90-day delay before reappointing department heads for 2008. But that motion was defeated and new Mayor Tye Howard broke a 3-3 tie in a vote to reappoint all of the leaders, including Clifton.

But Clifton said Tuesday that the uncertainty about his position was not the deciding factor in his decision to leave.

"Even without that, it would have been difficult to turn this offer down," he said. "It is a wonderful opportunity to be part of building a brand new police department. And financially it is a big difference," he said.

Clifton said he had heard through law enforcement friends that the new department was looking for command staff and allowed them to express his interest, and he was interviewed late last year.

Johns Creek was incorporated in late 2006, immediately becoming the state's 10th largest city. Police services have continued to be provided by the Fulton County Police Department, but Clifton said the new city hopes to have its own police department up and running by May.

"I'm going from 20-man force serving a town of 5,000 to a city of 65,000 where they are planning a 100-man force. It will be fun to help get that going," he said.

He also said he looked forward to more direct police work again and not having the political headaches of being chief.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity I had here and the experience. I still love Forsyth, and we're going to keep living in north Monroe County," he said.

Clifton was hired in late 2005 to replace long-time chief Ben Ponder, who retired. But almost immediately a number of Forsyth residents began complaining about his appointment and his reorganization of the department. He was accused of being racially biased against black members of the police department and the black community, charges that Clifton and former Mayor Jimmy Pace and the city council strongly denied.

Clifton said Tuesday that he leaves the department in much better shape than when he arrived two years ago, and that it is on the verge of becoming state certified.

"There's no turmoil here in this department. The only problem is with a few very vocal people outside of the department. We've hired some outstanding police officers and made great strides. I've enjoyed my time here and was not planning to leave until this opportunity came along," he said.

Clifton said he has encouraged all of the officers to remain. So far only one has resigned, Maj. Chris Byers, who was head of the patrol division.

Maj. Art Phillips, head of support services, will serve as interim chief after Clifton's departure. He was assistant chief under Ponder and served as interim chief before Clifton was hired.

Capt. George Foster has been promoted to major and will take over command of support services, and Sgt. Matt Perry has been promoted to major and will take over command of the patrol division.