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Police Chief Defends Drug Task Force Against Commissioner’s Criticism

Police Chief Cleveland Spruill.

Police Chief Cleveland Spruill released a lengthy statement Tuesday defending a regional drug task force and taking issue with Athens-Clarke County Commission Mariah Parker’s criticism that it perpetuates a racist war on drugs.

At issue is a $139,000 grant to help fund the task force that the commission will vote Tuesday night on applying to renew. Athens Politics Nerd published an op-ed from Parker over the weekend announcing that she plans to vote against it.

If we judge the Drug War on whether it has made our communities safer and healthier, it has been a failure. It’s only lasting success is in maintaining racial control and destabilizing Black communities. 

So, no, I am not interested in continuing to fund the narcotics task force, federally or locally. I would much prefer to actually disrupt the black market for drugs through well-resourced drug addiction treatment and decriminalization. I would rather see us invest in job programs that create pipelines away from organized crime and into dignified, well-paid work; in youth programs that steer young people away from gangs; and into housing, community gardens, and other interventions based on the legitimate science of public health and not the scheming of racist Republicans who are mostly all dead now.

For Spruill, a department head, to respond to an elected official’s statements in this fashion is extraordinary, if not unprecedented.

“The Athens-Clarke County minority community continues to be disproportionately impacted by crime, gangs, shootings, violence and deaths, all fueled by the ongoing regional drug trade,” he said. “The Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force plays a critical role in combating this violence and the negative impacts of the illegal drug trade on our community.”

Spruill, who is Black, accused Parker, who is also Black, of “[using] the race card.” Since 2018, nine of 11 murder victims and 73% of aggravated assault victims in Athens have been Black, according to Spruill. In addition, drug overdoses have nearly doubled since May, with two Black women dying of drug overdoses on Monday alone.

Spruill cited several specific cases: The 2018 fatal shooting of Walter Brown in a drug-related gang dispute, followed by retaliation against one of the shooter’s relatives, Rodriguez Rucker; another 2018 case where two Athens residents, Derrick Ruff and Joshua Jackson, were executed by gang members in Gwinnett County; and the 2019 murder of Auriel Callaway, a 24-year-old pregnant woman who was shielding her young son from bullets.

According to Spruill, police have responded to 149 shootings this year and seized 393 illegal guns.

We know that shootings occur in our minority communities almost daily and that the large majority of the victims are people of color. These shootings are often carried out by violent drug dealers and gang members using AR-15’s or other high-powered rifles. They result in people of color being disproportionately shot, injured and killed in their own neighborhoods. Homes and vehicles are riddled with gunfire on almost a nightly basis, and in some instances with as many as 65 bullets being fired. Sadly, Athens has become a community where violent drug and gang members are emboldened enough to stream videos of themselves on social media while brandishing guns, AK-47’s, and other assault rifles with high-capacity drum magazines, all while making threats of violence.

Spruill’s statement linked to a rap video by Slixk Sosa.

The Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force is a partnership among ACC and law enforcement agencies in surrounding counties that includes four ACCPD officers. It targets both high-level traffickers and street-level dealers, according to documents, but Spruill said that low-level offenders go through a pre-trial diversion program that lets them get treatment and avoid jail time.