Why Athens Needs a Civilian Police Review Board

courtesy of Mokah Jasmine Johnson

In early 2020, Mayor Kelly Girtz established a Police Advisory Task Force charged with evaluating and making recommendations to improve community relations and policing. This body of diverse individuals from various professional backgrounds and life experiences took on the assignment with the hope of creating an infrastructure that addresses the damaged relationship between marginalized community members and police officers. 

After a year of weekly meetings and extensive research, and with the professional guidance of NACOLE (National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement), the task force recommended that the Athens-Clarke County government establish a hybrid model. On Feb. 24, 2020, co-chairs Shane Sims and I shared with the ACC commissions’ Government Operations Committee this collaborative model, which would include an auditor or monitor and a citizen review board to properly serve the residents of Athens-Clarke County. The auditor/monitor would manage daily operations, and the citizens review board would give community members a voice, a seat at the table.

Nationwide, racial tension has risen due to ongoing police brutality and lack of accountability and transparency in law enforcement. Time and time again, families have been left without answers or justification for their loved ones killed or harmed by police officers, and Athens is no exception. Unfortunately, over the past few years, Athens has made national news due to several incidents causing local advocacy groups to become vocal about the misuse of police force, Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and the increasing rates of Black and brown men being incarcerated in our community. These incidents included an officer using his vehicle to stop a fleeing suspect, then suing our local government for wrongful termination and settling for $250,000. The same year, another ACCPD officer was scrutinized for forcefully restraining a 10-year-old child distraught over his father’s arrest. Additional events that also raised concerns included the six shootings by officers in 2019, the use of tear gas on Athens protesters during the May 31, 2020 protest and more. Many of these incidents caused division within our community and could have been addressed through a civilian oversight board. 

Since releasing our recommendations, some people have negatively reacted out of fear and misinformation. And sadly, Chief Cleveland Spruill, one of the task forces’ non-voting members, unexpectedly pushed back on the recommendations without fair warning. After months of hard work, he waited until the day we presented to the GOC to let us know he would do everything in his power to destroy our hard work. Spruill disagreed with Girtz’s efforts to create a diverse selection of task force members and rejected the task force recommendation to allow individuals with previous records who have paid their debts to society to serve on this board. 

I will also point out that people have been misled to believe that our intention is to “defund the police,” which this board cannot do, nor was created to do. For clarity, the mayor and commission, plus the city manager, control the budget and decide how money is dispersed within our community, not a civilian oversight board. 

This is an opportunity for growth and correction. By establishing a civilian oversight board, ACC residents, our local government and our police department will begin to work towards improving transparency, reducing police misconduct or abuse, building a positive relationship, and creating a dialogue between officers and community members. I do believe with all the conflict and division we are facing, by establishing a police oversight board or department, we could offer some peace and resolution within our community. 

On Mar. 8, a town hall discussion was held to better inform the general public. Guests included myself, Sims, Girtz, David Bradley of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, Commissioner Tim Denson and NACOLE representative Cameron McEllhiney. The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement will continue to inform and advocate until a police oversight department is established. 

In addition to myself and Sims, founder of the nonprofit People Living in Recovery, task force members include Project Safe Executive Director Joan Prittie, Stephanie Flores of the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition and Cedar Shoals High School senior Tykerius “T.K.” Monford.

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