Avondale police chief discusses first year on the job, says he is listening to concerns of racial justice advocatesCity of Avondale Estates Chief of Police Harry Hess. Photo by Dean Hesse.
This story has been updated.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the April 1 Decaturish e-edition.
Avondale Estates, GA — In his first year as police chief, Harry Hess is focusing on community, leadership and technology in Avondale Estates.
Hess came into the job at a tumultuous time for the department. The previous police chief retired after a failed state accreditation attempt, and the department has been under scrutiny for racially biased policing practices.
The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice has been advocating for changes to be made in the police department over the last few years.
“We’re doing research on some of their suggestions,” Hess said. “There’s no reason for us not to work with them or any other group within the community that have concerns.”
Previously, Hess served as the assistant police chief in Clarkston, the sergeant over the office of professional standards in the city of Morrow, and was an officer in Doraville. He’s been a certified police officer in Georgia for about 18 years.
His first year as Avondale’s police chief has flown by, Hess said.
“Looking at the calendar, I can’t believe it’s almost been a year. I’ve loved every minute of it,” Hess said. “I’m really looking forward to the future. I’m looking forward to what we can do as a department, as well a city, for the community.”
Hess was sworn in at the April 13, 2022, city commission meeting and his first day on the job was April 26, 2022.
The police department was a diamond in the rough coming into the job, Hess said. The staff accepted having a fresh set of eyes on the department to look at what things, if any, needed to be tweaked.
“It needed a little polishing,” he said. “Overall, I think the department was good. It was established, but just like everything else, you can’t stay stagnant. You’ve got to continue to grow and reach bigger, better things or else you’re just going to get passed by.”
During his first couple of weeks on the job, he and the officers were mainly getting to know each other. From there, they’ve worked to figure out how the department can be more efficient and effective, and continue to engage the community.
Hess was optimistic as he began his new job. He knew about the state certification report, but when he started with the department it wasn’t troublesome and everything was smooth sailing.
“I, personally, feel we can be a very successful small agency in Georgia, let alone in the Southeast or America,” Hess said.
When it comes to community, the department is working to engage all parts of the community, including residents and visitors.
“We want to build stronger bonds within the community, stronger than what they already are,” Hess said.
According to the city’s last traffic study, about 40,000 to 50,000 people travel through the city daily, Hess said. There are 3,600 residents in Avondale Estates. He is also reaching out to the surrounding community that frequents the city.
“Just because you don’t live in the city doesn’t mean you’re not part of this community. If you do business in the city, if you travel through the city, you’re part of our community,” Hess said.
The department is also building on quarterly community events, such as coffee with a cop.
“The purpose of that is to give the public, as well as our team, the opportunity to interact with each other in a more of a [relaxed] environment and talk freely,” Hess said. “The big thing I push to my officers is humanizing the badge.”
“We want to make sure that others realize that just because we wear a uniform, we’re still very much approachable,” he added.
He said connecting is what will legitimize the department.
In terms of leadership, Hess is working to help his officers succeed. Hess also noted that he’s not in the position he is today without good leaders who took chances on him. He aims to return that to his staff.
He’s pushing the supervisors to get to know what makes the officers tick, learn their goals and aspirations, and figure out how to help push them to succeed.
“I had a great chief that once said that we don’t own the seat we sit in. It’s temporary. That seat is not permanently mine. My goal is to leave it better than how I found it, but also set up someone that can slide into that position versus having to go external,” Hess said.
He’s also empowering all the officers to speak up about their concerns.
“All the way from a line officer to me, I want them to know that they have a voice and it matters. Whether it be ideas on new equipment or technology that’s coming out that maybe hasn’t come across my computer or my desk yet, they have ideas, let’s look at it,” Hess said.
The department will be doing policy revisions with Lexipol via a contract recently approved by the city commission.
“Every officer, every sergeant is going to be tasked with policy review to ensure that it is practical at their line level,” Hess said.
On the technology side, Ford pro software has been implemented in the police vehicles to provide real-time vehicle information, information on driving habits, and information on maintenance, among other data.
The department is also exploring creating an app that would have a calendar of events, and be able to send push notifications on any urgent real-time issues.
“The great part of that is I think it gives the community an opportunity to engage with us because if they feel like they need to give us a tip, they can submit tips anonymously through the app,” Hess said.
Avondale Estates Mayor Jonathan Elmore said he’s glad that Hess is here.
“As you know, the chief is hired by the city manager and thus fails under the manager’s administrative purview,” Elmore said. “That said, Chief Hess is a great guy and has met with a lot of community groups and has made a very positive impression. And his previous experience in DeKalb County is a big plus in my opinion.”
City Manager Patrick Bryant added that Hess has done a good job establishing a culture in the department that’s professional and lends itself to being more active in the community. Hess has brought fresh ideas to policing as well.
“Word-of-mouth has spread about the culture of the police department, which has allowed us to recruit better candidates more easily,” Bryant said. “I’ve been very pleased with Chief Hess since day one and look forward to a continued collaborative relationship that not only works for the organization but the entire Avondale community.”
Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice member Kenn Bivins said that even before Hess was sworn in, he was demonstrating his personable, hands-on approach to community policing.
“Since then, Chief Hess has been extraordinarily interactive and engaging with the community, addressing policing concerns and the optics associated with the past administration,” Bivins said.
Hess has had an open-door policy and is committed to engaging with the community, AARJ member Candice McKinley added.
“He has intentionally brought AARJ to the table to hear the community’s concerns and find solutions,” she said. “The Community Listening Sessions that are being planned will allow for a wider group of stakeholders to directly express their thoughts and concerns about policing. We feel hopeful about the direction we are moving in.”
AARJ member Carol Calvert mentioned that the organization has seen positive shifts in policing within the department, such as no longer ticketing along Covington Highway.
“It is not being viewed as a speed trap, as it once was, and patrols are visible throughout all of Avondale now,” Calvert said. “Chief Hess has said he wants to emphasize education and warnings over always going straight to ticketing. The frequent ticketing of parents of Avondale Elementary School students is no longer a problem, and Chief Hess and his police force are developing a very positive relationship with all the schools in our community.”
Calvert added that Hess understands how policing impacts the city and the surrounding communities.
“We are looking forward to the continued dialogue with him and our city manager around developing policies and enhancing training to ensure unbiased and safe policing in Avondale,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the AARJ members. The story has been updated with the correct information.
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