Marietta chief on mental health, crime, retention and more

·9 min read

Apr. 29—MARIETTA — Seven months after the City Council appointed him as Marietta's new police chief, Marty Ferrell said one of his biggest priorities has been supporting mental health initiatives for his officers.

"If they aren't emotionally fit to be on the road, how are they going to come to your home and handle something, as a 21-, 22-year-old officer ... if they're not emotionally ready? So, I've emphasized a lot on our emotional health," Ferrell said.

In an interview with the MDJ, Ferrell spoke about that concern, as well as crime in the city, recruitment and retention, gang activity, race relations and more.

The chief has led the department for 15 months. He was appointed interim chief in early 2022 upon the retirement of his predecessor, Dan Flynn, and was made the permanent chief last September.

Ferrell, an MPD veteran of more than 30 years, said that when he started working, mental health concerns weren't considered.

"When I started in 1990, you would see horrible things, and no one ever asked you, 'Are you OK?' It just was unheard of, you just dealt with it and went on about your business," Ferrell said.

Over time, the stress of the job, if left unaddressed, produces negative symptoms in officers — more use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints, absenteeism, alcoholism and suicides; along with less productivity.

Local departments have to get away from the "suck it up, buttercup" mentality of old, Ferrell said, if they are to be effective.

To that end, the department has rolled out new initiatives aimed at addressing officers' emotional needs.

One novel approach is the department's new "wellness room," where officers can go to decompress after working at traumatic crime scenes.

"It's designed to kind of calm you down and get you back on an even keel," Ferrell said.

The wellness room at police headquarters includes a massage chair, adjustable lighting, speakers that play soothing sounds, aromatherapy, tea and snacks. Ferrell believes other departments across the country will follow MPD's example.

"The science behind it is proven to reduce the stress, to reduce your heart rate, to reduce your blood pressure, to just calm your whole body down," said Officer Chuck McPhilamy, Marietta Police Department spokesman.

In addition to funding the wellness room, the City Council has funded mental health counselors who spend time with officers, including riding in cars with them.

"So when they start to see an officer maybe in decline, or something is not right, the counselor already has an idea of what is the normal line for the officer," Ferrell said.

The chief said he's learned from his wife, Penny, who works for Wellstar Health System. Wellstar has its own initiatives to support healthcare workers who witness traumatic situations on the job.

"I don't ever want someone in my police department to have some tragedy, and they feel like they don't have anywhere to turn," Ferrell said.

Community relations

In addition to working on mental health initiatives for officers, Ferrell is trying to help officers deal with people in the community who have mental and emotional health problems.

The chief said he's seen a growth in the number of unhoused people in the community, many of whom have mental health problems, and alcohol or drug addictions. The ones who don't commit crimes or threaten other residents need help, not an arrest.

Ferrell quoted MUST Ministries CEO Ike Reighard, saying "no one chooses to be homeless."

"And I don't disagree with that. But for some reason they are, and we're seeing an influx here," Ferrell said.

The police department has a new co-responder program where a counselor, contracted through Highland Rivers, assists officers responding to mental health calls.

The counselor works to try to help people get the help they need, such as getting them into a treatment facility.

That approach to mentally distressed people is part of the department's overall community policing strategy.

Ferrell said Marietta police seek to build trust through community events and the Citizen's Police Academy. Most important is a commitment to professionalism when dealing with the public, whether it's a friendly conversation or enforcing the law.

"The way we treat you on that traffic stop speaks volumes about who you are as a police department. If that interaction goes bad, that is what's going to make the news," Ferrell said.

The chief said he doesn't employ a full-time internal affairs investigator, because there aren't enough complaints to justify one.

Marietta Councilman Johnny Walker said the chief is doing a great job, and that the rest of the council feels the same way.

"He's very well-liked in the community and hands-on, cares about Marietta. We couldn't have a better chief," Walker said.

Walker added that "everybody's got full trust in Marty," and that he hears no complaints about the chief.

Recruitment and retention

Across the country, the chief said, there's a problem of officers leaving law enforcement.

"It's a very difficult job ... They're not making a whole lot of money, in the scheme of things," he said. "They work holidays, weekends, they see a lot of horrible things that people shouldn't see."

While those factors have always been part of the job, Ferrell said others, such as heightened scrutiny of police, are newer.

"You've had the 'defund the police,' the national rhetoric of 'police are not good, we're bad,' that weighs heavily on officers who are out here trying to do a good job," he said.

Locally, however, Ferrell feels the community supports the department. It's evidenced in little things, like citizens buying lunch for officers when they see them at a restaurant.

"The national rhetoric is not what's happening in the city and in this county. We are blessed that we have citizens in this county that care about us," he said.

Marietta is a diverse community, and Ferrell said he works hard to make sure the department reflects that.

During the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests which occurred in Marietta were peaceful.

"The way we handled those events, I couldn't have asked for anything better. We quickly built a rapport with the folks who wanted to walk down our streets, we were there to protect them," Ferrell said.

Despite what people see in national news, Ferrell doesn't see a divisive racial climate in Marietta.

The Marietta Police Department has 139 sworn personnel slots, 12 of which are vacant. Ferrell said the department loses, on average, one officer a month, which he believes is on par, if not better, than the turnover rate nationwide.

Most of the people who leave are exiting the profession, he said, or going into private security, not moving to other police departments.

The Marietta City Council, he said, has supported efforts to recruit and retain officers, including pay raises, a "great benefits package," and purchasing equipment to make their jobs easier.

Another improvement coming to the department is a new training center which MPD and the Marietta Fire Department will use. The council allocated $3 million for the center, which will be located south of Sawyer Road Elementary School. It will include moveable walls which police will use to simulate different real-life scenarios.

MPD doesn't have a dedicated training center, instead using schools and businesses. Cobb County's training center is usually booked for Cobb police and sheriff's office training, Ferrell said.

Ferrell loosely estimates a spring 2024 completion date for the center.

The chief also wants to retain officers so they can get more experience. One challenge, he said, is that many in the department, especially the patrol force, are young and inexperienced.

When Ferrell lays down to sleep at night, "I know that the guys out patrolling the streets of Marietta at 1 o'clock in the morning are very, very young, and very inexperienced."

"And they do a fantastic job," he added. "But that's something that I wish I had a magic wand and they could all have five to seven years experience."

Threats to public safety

Many of the complaints officers receive in Marietta are quality-of-life complaints not directly related to crime, Ferrell said. Police forward lots of complaints about potholes, graffiti or faulty streetlights to other city departments to get them addressed.

Ferrell said larceny is the biggest driver of Marietta's crime rate, mainly consisting of shoplifters and car break-ins.

The city has low levels of violent crime.

We have an extremely low murder rate in Marietta," Ferrell said. "The rapes, generally it's a known perpetrator on those type of cases, sexual crimes."

The chief said street racing isn't common in Marietta, but police get complaints about loud exhausts. Enforcing laws on that remains a challenge.

"That's a situation where you almost have to be there, to hear it, to enforce it," he said.

Gang activity exists in the city, as it does all over the country, he said. State Attorney General Chris Carr told the MDJ earlier this year that "depending on who you talk to ... between 60 and 90% of all violent crime is gang-affiliated."

Ferrell said MPD works with the FBI to combat gangs. People who are recruited into joining are typically youths without much support at home.

"They're all looking for something that's going to give them a family feeling," he said. "They may not have the best family at home, and they're looking for something that's going to give them a sense of identity."

He praised legislation recently signed by Gov. Brian Kemp which imposes tougher sentences on people convicted of gang recruitment. On an individual level, Ferrell said parents and other adults have to know where kids are and what they're up to and be active in their education. Young people who choose to enter gangs are likely to end up dead or in prison, he said.

"It's a growing problem, but we have to be diligent and continue to press and try to keep these young folks from becoming gang members," Ferrell said.