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Athens Police Chief Talks Community-Oriented Policing

Traditional policing has failed because the focus on arrest rates, the tactic of random patrols, incarceration as the sole tool for law enforcement and the lack of relationships between police and citizens alienate the public and do nothing to prevent crime or the fear of crime, Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Freeman said at the ACC Commission’s Sept. 18 work session (rescheduled because of Irma). He pointed to Ferguson, MO, the site of riots in 2014, where “there were systemic issues that should have been caught early on.”

Instead, in ACC, officers are assigned to zones where they get to know residents and business owners, Freeman said. The philosophy calls for treating crime as a symptom and working to solve the root problem. Examples of community-oriented policing Freeman cited included a reading program for children at Bethel Midtown Village, community cookouts at Athens Garden apartments (where there had been a rash of drive-by shootings), officers helping a victim of elder abuse to move and First Friday basketball games in East Athens, organized by local artist and activist Broderick Flanigan.

ACC started moving toward community-oriented policing in 1995, after an officer shot and killed Edward Wright, a young African American—an incident that still reverberates through Athens’ minority communities, Freeman said. Former police chief Jack Lumpkin, hired in 1997, was the father of community-oriented policing in Athens, Freeman said. Freeman was hired to replace Lumpkin in 2015, and said he is now trying to take the concept “light years above every other department in this country,” with a new strategic plan and rewritten policies (available at the ACCPD website.)

Although Georgia only requires police officers to undergo 20 hours of training per year, ACC officers receive 66, in areas like de-escalating conflict and implicit bias. But Freeman said he would like to double that number. To provide that level of training and fully implement community-oriented policing, Freeman said he needs 50 new officers.

He’s having trouble keeping the ones he has, though. Twenty-two of 242 officers have left this year—mainly because of money and feeling unappreciated in the current anti-cop climate, according to Freeman—the highest turnover rate in the eight years the department has kept that statistic. UGA students “do not want to even consider us for $36,000,” Freeman said. Since Gov. Nathan Deal raised the minimum salary for state troopers and GBI agents to $47,000, officers have been flocking there from local departments, he said.

The ACC police department is 26 percent black, according to Freeman, which closely mirrors the makeup of the city. But commissioners questioned him on the lack of female and minority representation on his leadership team. Freeman said he put the most qualified candidates into place without regard for race or gender. But “diversity is absolutely a priority,” and he is revamping the promotion process, he said.

Commissioners also pressed Freeman on traffic enforcement—speeding, drunk driving and distracted driving. Wrecks are up, but Freeman attributed that to an increased population.

In response to a question about marijuana decriminalization, he said he can’t let that slide, even if the commission passes a parallel ordinance setting just a small fine for possession. “Legally, we have to follow state laws,” he said. “As long as those laws are passed, it’s our job to enforce those laws.”