Commissioners Parker and Denson Want to ‘Reimagine’ Police

ACC Commissioner Mariah Parker.

Call it “defunding” if you want to. ACC Commissioner Mariah Parker calls it “reimagining.”

As cities across the country start to rethink the role of police in the wake of the massive protests over Georgie Floyd’s death, Parker and Commissioner Tim Denson recently released a plan to cut the number of Athens police officers in half over 10 years, replacing them with social workers, restorative justice mediators and mental health specialists. “This plan acknowledges the need for a more compassionate response to community safety,” Parker told Flagpole.

It starts in fiscal 2021 with eliminating five vacant police positions, hiring a social worker, adding a third mental health response team, raising public defenders’ salaries to bring them into line with prosecutors’, and following a police recommendation to bring all 911 dispatching in-house, rather than transferring medical calls to ambulance contractor National EMS and forcing callers to explain the emergency twice. In addition, a committee would receive $50,000 to figure out how to implement the plan long-term.

The plan could be paid for by eliminating raises for assistant district attorneys and deferring administrative vehicle purchases, or a 120-day hiring freeze, Parker said.

The ACC Police Department currently has 320 authorized positions, including 254 sworn officers. The county spends about 16% of its budget on police—$22 million this year.

As officers resign or retire—”We don’t intend to fire anyone, ever,” Parker said—funding for their salaries would be reinvested in areas like housing, homeless services, domestic violence and jobs programs to address the root causes of crime. Instead of sending armed police to break up a fight at a party, a mediator would be dispatched to talk to kids about the conflict. This would also free up armed police to respond to more dangerous situations, rather than force them to act in roles as psychologists or social workers, for which they’re not trained. “This plan takes into account how stressful it is to be a police officer,” Parker said. “I view this as supporting them in their necessary functions.”

Some constituents—angered by police violence nationwide and tear-gassing at a recent local protest—want to move faster and cut half the police force immediately, but “taking a cautious approach is smarter,” Parker said. Crime has been declining in Athens since the mid-1990s; if that trend reverses, ACC could change course and hire more police.

Commissioners will discuss the budget again at a Thursday, June 18 work session. The budget is scheduled for a vote on June 25 and takes effect July 1.

Unfortunately, Parker had to turn to the police herself recently after at least two people posted threats against her on social media. She said she was “thrilled” by the way ACCPD responded, although she is concerned that an officer in the ACC fire department “liked” one of the threats.

Adding to what’s been a rough few weeks, Parker also tested positive for coronavirus recently. She briefly went to the hospital last week after experiencing symptoms, but they turned out to be a panic attack rather than COVID-19. Parker said she is planning to get tested again soon and, if she’s negative, end her self-quarantine.

This post has been updated to correct the type of vehicle purchase the 50/10 plan could defer.