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ACC Police Chief Says Athens Officers Are Often Outgunned

A Glock 9mm, the standard-issue handgun for ACCPD. Credit: Stuart Hill

Athens-Clarke County police need more firepower to fight a wave of drug- and gang-related shootings, Chief Cleveland Spruill told commissioners at a work session last week.

“We’re being asked to police in a heavily armed and sometimes very violent community,” Spruill said. Police responded to 163 shooting calls last year in which 42 people were shot, and seized 404 illegal guns, he said.

“These incidents illustrate the need to ensure that our officers have the tools and equipment they need to do the very difficult and very dangerous job that we’re asking them to do, and that they’re able to do it in the safest way possible,” Spruill said. “Now, I do want to acknowledge that there’s also a need for us to not appear overly militarized… My challenge as a police chief is to find the right balance.”

ACCPD officers are armed with Glock 9 mm pistols, 12-gauge shotguns and, in some cases, semiautomatic tactical rifles. Spruill said he would like to arm every officer with tactical rifles, and in some cases officers are buying them with their own money to use on duty.

Officers also need better body armor, Spruill said. The soft armor most officers wear is effective against 9 mm bullets, but larger calibers, such as 5.56 mm and 7.62 mm, can penetrate those vests. Officers on the drug and gang task forces and the Strategic Response Team have body armor with rifle plates that stop those larger caliber bullets. 

Casings recovered from shootings show that the shooters are often using more powerful weapons than what police carry, according to Spruill. “It’s not unprecedented that we would find ourselves in a situation where the suspect is outgunning our officers,” he said.

Spruill also said that ACCPD will need to replace about 75 vehicles at $47,000 each and the department’s mobile command center at $500,000 or more within the next couple of years. He also wants a ballistic identification system to compare the unique markings guns leave on shell casings and help develop leads on shootings.

Recent purchases include a $40,000 Long Range Acoustic Device, which Spruill described as a mega-loudspeaker used to communicate with large crowds over long distances. But Flagpole contributor Chris Dowd, on his Athens Politics Nerd website, asserted that the LRAD is actually a “sound cannon” used to disperse crowds that can potentially cause long-term damage to hearing.

Other equipment described by Spruill included 10 motorcycles for directing traffic, six canine units that sniff out drugs and search for missing people, drones that can enter a suspect’s house and look around while an officer operates it from a safe distance, mountain bikes for patrolling downtown, a bomb-defusing robot, Tasers, batons, body cameras and first-aid equipment like tourniquets and Narcan, used to treat opioid overdoses. 

He also discussed the controversial “Bearcat” armored vehicle, which came to ACCPD in 2013 through a Homeland Security program that distributes surplus military equipment to police departments. The Bearcat was deployed 13 times last year, Spruill said, and would be useful in a situation like a mass shooting. “When you need something like that, you better have it,” he said.

Before Spruill’s presentation, Commissioner Mariah Parker bowed out of the meeting. “I don’t trust the chief’s ability to engage professionally with reasoned critique,” said Parker, who has criticized Spruill for pursuing a drug war that targets people of color. Spruill has also feuded with Mokah-Jasmine Johnson, co-chair of a task force that led to the establishment of a police oversight committee.

Days before police shot and killed Juan Joseph Daniele Castellano after he shot at a car, threatened people with a rifle, robbed a park attendant and carjacked a park-goer at Walker Park in East Athens in May, Castellano “put a plea on Facebook asking folks to send him a dollar,” Parker said. Better use-of-force policies aren’t the answer, she added, but better anti-poverty and mental health policies could have saved his life.

Manager Blaine Williams noted that he put together the work session at the commissioners’ request. “I ask that there not be attacks on our staff,” he said.