New Centerville public safety director shares vision for police and fire

CENTERVILLE — Newly-appointed Public Safety Director Anthony B. Cooper is a Bob Newhart fan.

He likes to joke that he and his two chiefs are similar to three backwoodsman characters that appeared on the popular 1980s television comedy “Newhart.” Cooper likes to quote the trademark phrase of the show’s character Larry. The phrase: “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.”

All joking aside, Cooper said the recent decision by City Council to combine police and fire services under the helm of a public safety department was a natural next step for the small community of Centerville as it continues to grow.

In 1984, Centerville had a police chief and one part-time officer. Today, Centerville has 19 sworn officers, five part-time officers, and two administrative staff members. The fire department has 13 full-time firefighters and five part-time firefighters. The agencies already work closely together, responding to many of the same emergency situations, Cooper said. It just made sense to streamline the departments under one supervisor.

Tuesday, Cooper, 57, who has served as police chief for about a year, was sworn in as the public safety director. He’ll earn about $65,500 a year.

Sid Andrews, 35, who was serving as the assistant police chief, was promoted to chief of police services, and Jason Jones, 38, who was serving as the assistant fire chief, was tapped as chief of fire services. Jones had been serving as acting fire chief. Each will earn about $54,700 annually.

Cooper, who retired from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency as resident agent in charge in Port St. Lucie, Fla., returned to law enforcement as Centerville’s police chief because he wanted to give back to the profession he made a career of by sharing his expertise and experience. He brings with him a total of nearly 35 years in law enforcement.

Cooper said the raw talent was already in place when he became the police chief and now he wants to do something similar with the fire department, which he said already has a strong team of firefighters.

Andrews has nearly 10 years of experience with Centerville police, and previously served with the Fort Valley Police Department. Jones has nearly 12 years of firefighting experience with Centerville fire. Jones started his career as a firefighter with Centerville fire.

Cooper said he hopes to take Jones under his wing much like he did Andrews. For the past year, Cooper and Andrews have worked closely. One area they’ve worked on is retention within the police department.

Cooper said his desire is that either Andrews or Jones could take the helm as public safety director when it is time for him to step down, or each be able to run the police service or fire service on its own should council decide not to continue with a public safety director.

Consolidating police and fire under a public safety director will provide one voice before council instead of having competing department heads for limited budget dollars, Cooper noted.

It also makes sense to look at the possibility of cross-training down the road, Cooper said.

Already, Jones has expressed a desire in becoming a certified law enforcement officer so that he may have arrest powers when working arson investigations. Another firefighter also trained to investigate arsons could also receive law enforcement training. Meanwhile, the police force now has an officer that has served as a firefighter. With additional training to update skills, that officer could also double as firefighter, Cooper said.

An eventual move toward cross-training would not be designed to reduce the number of police or fire personnel but to enhance each department’s capabilities in the event of major fire or police incident, Cooper said.

Consolidating under one department also facilitates more cooperation between police and fire.

Jones and Andrews are already talking with Cooper about the possibility of a fire and police training center on nearly four acres of property off Dunbar Road. There’s been talk of a having a fire training facility there in the past but now the dream is bigger.

Such a dual training facility would provide a savings for the city by training police officers and firefighters closer to home, rather than sending them to a training center in Forsyth, Cooper said.

And each chief has some ideas of his own on how he’ll handle day to day operations. Cooper will oversee administrative functions such as budgets, for example, and he has the final say over both police and fire.

Jones said he wants to work toward lowering the fire protection rating issued by the Insurance Services Office that impacts insurance rates for home and business owners. And Anderson wants to develop community policing initiatives because he said he believes the public can serve as additional eyes on crime for city police.

Less than a week into their new positions, Cooper and the chiefs have been meeting with supervisors within police and fire to develop a shared vision for the fledging public safety department.

The city of Perry made a similar move a few years ago.

George Potter assumed the role of public safety director for the city of Perry in March 2006, having served as the city’s police chief since March of 1996. His chain of command includes a deputy chief over fire, a police captain over patrol and a police captain over investigations.

Potter said the experience has been an eye-opener as far as the needs of the fire department and he believes the move has strengthened both fire and police services.

The primary benefit has been that police and fire now have one mission, which has enhanced both services, Potter said.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.