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Protesters Clash Over Police Plan as Compromise Introduced

Black Lives Matter protesters and local Republicans gathered for dueling rallies on police funding June 16 outside City Hall.

Hundreds of Black Lives Matter protesters and counter-protesters gathered outside City Hall last Tuesday to comment on a controversial proposal to “reimagine public safety” and divert money away from the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.

Commissioners Mariah Parker and Tim Denson developed the proposal, which they refer to as the “50/10 Plan.” That’s because it seeks a 50% reduction in the size of ACCPD over a period of 10 years. Over 100 Athens residents spoke about the plan in an avalanche of civic engagement that skewed strongly in favor of Parker and Denson’s proposal.

During the public comment period, which lasted over four hours, some Athens residents said that they don’t feel comfortable calling armed police for help in a tense situation. Some expressed distrust of the police stemming from national events, the recent use of tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters and the six officer-involved shootings last year in Athens, which led to five deaths.

Many social workers and UGA social work students were among those lining up to comment. They described how the proposal would help them in their jobs providing services and support to Athens’ poor and vulnerable.

“Commissioner Parker’s 50/10 Plan is not just important, it is imperative to the health and safety of our residents,” said Victoria Slaboda, a court-appointed special advocate who works with the Georgia Department of Family and Children Services in Athens.

The Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has also publicly supported this plan. In a recent statement, it commended the 50/10 Plan as “the best and most serious effort at tackling this problem currently on the table anywhere in our state.”

The plan also has its detractors. Many members of the Athens GOP came out to oppose it and support ACCPD, saying the department doesn’t have the issues seen in other police agencies across the country. 

“We do not have systemic racism here,” said Mary Padgett. Others cited the pressing need for armed police officers to deal with crime and urged increasing funding to the police instead.

Those who spoke in opposition also included many black and brown residents who feared a rise in violent crime were the plan to go into effect. Jonathan Miranda, a black Athenian, described a harrowing ordeal he faced after being shot by a gunman when he was 18 years old. According to Miranda, the ambulance took 20 minutes to arrive, although the police were on scene in half that time. “The police are not our enemies,” Miranda said.

Due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19, only a handful of speakers were allowed inside the commission chamber at the same time, meaning there was ample time for the two groups to interact outside City Hall. Black Lives Matter protesters arrived early for a teach-in and demonstration to “End Slavery In Athens,” referring to the use of unpaid inmate labor by the ACC government. They took up positions on the steps of City Hall holding signs and chanting, as members of the Athens GOP began to arrive and gather below.

Tensions ran high, with shouting back and forth, but both groups generally remained peaceful. One confrontation did occur when a black activist was nearly pulled down the steps by an older white man trying to take their bullhorn away. The activist was shaken but not hurt.

This was the final “taxpayer bill of rights” hearing on the ACC fiscal 2021 budget, which is scheduled for a vote on June 25. [Chris Dowd]

Link Proposes Police Compromise

The ACC Commission ended its last budget work session June 18 close to reaching a deal on a package reforming police and boosting mental health and social services.

The Safe Communities Plan, spearheaded by Commissioner Melissa Link, is a hybrid of a budget proposal put forward by commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton and another proposed by Tim Denson and Mariah Parker. “There was a real need to build a bridge and bring these two proposals together into something the whole commission could agree upon,” Link said.

The $1.4 million plan includes funding for a third mental health responder team in the police department, a social worker in the public defender’s office, raises for public defenders, a second mobile clinic that offers mental health services, youth skills, child care, minority employee recruitment, purchasing from minority-owned vendors, hiring additional 911 dispatchers, and committees to review ordinances for equity and examine the impact of Urban Renewal on black communities. 

It also calls for the formation of a Public Safety and Community Building Task Force that will include representatives of public safety, mental health and social services organizations, as well as a paid community communications liaison. The task force would evaluate ACCPD funding and policies and recommend ways police or other entities can respond to calls more effectively, with goals of shifting resources to alternatives to police, getting rid of military-style equipment, cutting crime in half over the next five years and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The task force would work with a police citizens’ oversight committee already being formed.

Funding would come from delaying purchasing vehicles, the existing Neighbor to Neighbor program, a 120-day hiring freeze and raising the downtown parking rate by 25 cents an hour. [Blake Aued]