Athens-Clarke County police are being trained to handle protests so that they don’t have to call in the National Guard again, Chief Cleveland Spruill told commissioners last week.
Commissioners remain perturbed about the police response to peaceful Black Lives Matter protests May 31, when they gassed demonstrators to clear out downtown after declaring a curfew, and June 6, when law enforcement deployed snipers, helicopters and armored vehicles.
“Honestly, it was a very disturbing response,” said Commissioner Jesse Houle, who participated as an individual before being elected. Houle called it the largest police presence they’ve ever seen at hundreds of protests they’ve attended all over the country.
“There were a number of things we wish we could have done differently and want to do better, but our actions that night were lawful and justified,” Spruill said.
Spruill said at a Feb. 18 work session that he asked the state for help because of unspecified “intelligence” about “agitators,” and because he’d seen peaceful protests in other cities “go south.”
“We did make a request for some resources, but the resources that are sent to us are dictated by GEMA,” the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, he said. UGA also made a separate request to station the National Guard on campus on June 6, Spruill added.
“As I’ve heard many times, it looks bad when we’ve got all these vehicles and things that look militarized coming into the county,” Spruill said. The department has now trained about 50 officers to be part of a “civil disturbance team,” with the goal of training three-quarters so that ACCPD doesn’t have to rely on “outside resources.”
Spruill defended the use of what he called “innocuous gas” against protesters on May 31. Once the decision was made to clear the streets, Spruill said he wanted local police to do it instead of the National Guard, and the alternative to using gas was to go in with batons.
“I’ve done civil disobedience before where I intentionally got arrested,” Commissioner Tim Denson said, including once with future U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. “Looking back, we could’ve gotten gassed, I guess, which would have been terrible.”
Police officials also highlighted their use-of-force policies and said that they rarely use force against citizens. Only 138 out of 101,998 interactions with the public last year involved force, said Capt. Harrison Daniel, head of the Standards, Records and Training Division.
“2019 was a complete aberration from our norm over the past 25 years,” Daniel said, referring to the six people officers shot that year, killing five. There were no police shootings in 2020, but just last week officers shot and killed Timothy Statham, 37, of Winterville. When pulled over for driving a stolen car, Statham ran into the woods, and after being surrounded put a hand under his shirt and said he had a gun, according to police.
In the 2019 shootings, one man shot at officers, one pointed a shotgun at them, one had a realistic-looking air gun, one attacked an officer with a knife and tried to take his gun, one brandished a knife and one swung a machete. In all six cases, police either used a Taser to no effect, had no time or couldn’t risk missing, Spruill said. They tried foam rounds against Statham before shooting him.
ACCPD has added training for how to deal with “suicide by cop,” Daniel said. In addition, a new policy prohibits lone officers from responding to calls involving weapons or mental health issues by themselves. Instead, officers must wait for backup and plot a strategy from a safe staging area first.
Spruill also addressed high-speed chases after Commissioner Russell Edwards asked about a crash that severely injured an ACCPD officer during a Barrow County deputy’s pursuit of a suspect with a broken taillight.
ACCPD policy only allows chases for “high-level offenses,” Spruill said, but sheriff’s deputies have statewide jurisdiction, and he can’t order them to stop at the county line.
“Basically what I’m telling them is, ‘I’m going to show up in court and testify against you that it’s reckless and dangerous, and I asked you not to do it, and you did it anyway.’” Spruill said.
Commissioners generally struck a conciliatory tone throughout the two-hour discussion. Houle said they didn’t want to second-guess officers’ decisions or accuse them of misconduct.
“It’s an indicator of our failure as a community to have adequate resources for health care and violence prevention, and to some degree crisis response,” Houle said.
Spruill said that disparities across society in areas like housing and education need to be addressed.
“The best solution to gang membership is getting them a job, or getting them opportunities,” he said. “The police can’t fix it alone.”
Commissioner Melissa Link said ACCPD needs to rebuild relationships in the community, and that critics need to tone down their rhetoric.
“We need to remove those preconceived notions that officers are out there to cause harm to individuals,” she said. “I know a lot went wrong [May 31], but I think it’s a two-sided coin, quite frankly.”
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