Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Scott Freeman will fire and arrest any officer who violates a citizen’s civil rights, he said at a community forum on racial issues Tuesday night at the ACC Library.
“If you do your job, I will back you up to the hilt, even if it costs me my career,” Freeman said he tells his officers. “If you violate somebody’s constitutional rights, I will fight the GBI to be the first one to put handcuffs on you.”
Freeman said he wants the right to more easily fire officers like Fraser. “He should have been fired years prior to that taking place,” he said.
Freeman was hired away from the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office in 2015 to replace Jack Lumpkin, who had been police chief for nearly 20 years. Lumpkin “really developed a police department that was built on compassion, and I wanted to be part of that,” Freeman said.
But Freeman also announced a slew of reforms. The department is rewriting its policies from scratch, working with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government on a strategic plan, appointing a citizen’s advisory board, revising its hiring practices and developing a new website where policies and complaints against officers will be posted for the public to see.
ACCPD currently has an internal advisory board made up of representatives from each unit and division, as well as a “leadership team” consisting of all the captains in the department. To that, Freeman said he plans to add an external advisory board that would be a diverse group of about 40 citizens.
“Diversity is crucial,” he said. “The police department has to represent every segment of the community.”
Freeman said he made an effort to boost the number of minority officers while filling the 27 vacancies in his 240-officer force.
“It’s difficult because you have people of all races who do not want to be law enforcement officers because of the tension all around the country right now,” he said. But those positions have been filled.
One attendee wanted to know how applicants are vetted.
“There are a lot of trigger-finger policemen out here that are undercover racists,” she said.
Freeman said potential officers take a psychological test and a test that measures cultural sensitivity and implicit bias. In addition, recruiters scour applicants’ social media sites looking for signs of racism and conduct background checks that include interviews with neighbors and co-workers. Applicants are also interviewed by a panel.
“If we put one wrong person out there and give them a badge and a gun, the whole community pays the price,” he said.
Lumpkin was an advocate of community-oriented policing, and Freeman said he will continue to move away from the military-style tactics and equipment that are in vogue at many police departments.
“We are guardians of the community and not an occupying military force,” he said.
Freeman also spoke out in favor of gun control legislation.
“If the politicians in Washington would get their act together, it would make my job a lot easier,” he said. “…Clearly, clearly something needs to be done.”
About 150 people attended the forum, which was a follow-up to a Black Lives Matter vigil on Sunday that drew an estimated 400 people.
Other speakers included Mokah Jasmine Johnson, who organized both events, and Linda Lloyd, who spoke about the importance of voting and asked for volunteers to help register voters. Tim Denson of Athens for Everyone urged people to attend a July 21 committee meeting where ACC commissioners will discuss an anti-discrimination ordinance.