The Athens-Clarke County Commission approved a new citizen board that will advise local law enforcement agencies on policy and investigate complaints of police misconduct.
The Nov. 2 vote to create a Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board was unanimous against a national backdrop of debate over police abuses, particularly against African Americans. In Glynn County, three white men, among them a former police officer and investigator, are on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging through a neighborhood, based on their suspicion that Arbery had broken into vacant houses. At the same time, there has been a backlash to the “defund the police” movement, with crime becoming a major issue in the Atlanta mayoral race. Last week voters in Minneapolis, where a white officer was recently convicted of murdering George Floyd, rejected a ballot measure to reorganize and rename the police department. It has also proven divisive in Athens, with conservatives organizing in opposition and progressives wondering whether the board has enough teeth.
Calls for an oversight board began in 2019—a year when ACC police shot six people, killing five—and grew in 2020 after ACCPD gassed peaceful protesters during a local George Floyd protest. “I think [the use of force] is an immense power, and we need to make sure it’s wielded as thoughtfully, judiciously, compassionately and sparingly as possible,” Commissioner Jesse Houle said. (The shootings were all ruled justified by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and then-District Attorney Ken Mauldin declined to prosecute.)
The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement initiated those calls, and Mayor Kelly Girtz appointed its co-founder, Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, to head the Police Advisory Board Development Task Force, along with Shane Sims, an ex-felon who went on to become an ACCPD chaplain and start a substance abuse recovery nonprofit.
Fewer than one in 12 complaints against police result in disciplinary action, Johnson told the commission. “One too many times, we have watched Athens-Clarke County police officers walk away without any repercussions after causing harm to Black and brown lives,” she said, citing the Taylor Saulters incident, when the rookie officer used his police cruiser to chase and hit a fleeing Black man who had a warrant for a minor offense. Saulters was fired but not prosecuted, and was later awarded a $250,000 wrongful termination settlement. “How can we trust a system that’s designed to protect the blue?” Johnson said.
Johnson also expressed frustration that the commission’s Government Operations Committee took eight months to bring a recommendation forward to the full commission after her task force finished its work.
“It was a little bit more difficult than we imagined going into it,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered—legal questions, process questions.”
The GOC made a number of changes to the task force’s recommendations, including adding the sheriff’s department, probation office and corrections department (the agency that runs the local prison, as opposed to the jail) to the advisory board’s portfolio. An emphasis on prioritizing those who have “lived experience with police violence or over-policing” for appointment to the board was removed, but it will be incumbent on the commission to ensure that diverse communities are represented, Commissioner Mariah Parker said.
The board will consist of nine people appointed by the Mayor and Commission, along with six non-voting members: a commissioner, the ACC attorney, the police chief, the sheriff, the chief probation officer and the warden of the corrections department. It will have the power to investigate complaints and make policy recommendations, but will not have any control over law enforcement budgets or personnel decisions. The GOC left unaddressed the issue of staffing.
Johnson and Police Chief Cleveland Spruill at times clashed over the makeup of the advisory board—particularly the initial exclusion of law enforcement officers—but Commissioner Melissa Link read a statement from Spruill endorsing the final proposal.
“It opens a dialog, and I believe that’s the real purpose of this committee is to have that dialog,” Link said. “There has been a loss of trust between certain portions of our citizenry and police.”
Critics of the advisory board said they think Spruill is doing a fine job and don’t think police need oversight. “My whole concern is the fact that we have a city manager, we have a mayor who oversees Chief Spruill,” said Gordon Rhoden, president of the Athens GOP. “Why do we need another layer of bureaucracy? If Chief Spruill’s not doing his job, I think he needs to be let go.”
Commissioner Carol Myers noted that ACC has citizen oversight committees for other areas of government, like transportation and solid waste. “This is who we are here,” she said.
Myers also addressed speakers who said they’ve never had any problems with police: “I’ve never had trouble with police, but that’s not the perspective of everyone in the community, and we want to build trust for everyone in the community.”
The commission also voted unanimously to create a human relations commission that will receive and investigate complaints about violations of the county’s recently passed nondiscrimination ordinance.
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