Who do you call when your rights have been violated? For many, the answer would be the police. But what if you were mistreated or your rights were violated by a law enforcement officer?
When someone becomes a victim of police misconduct, it can be difficult for them to accept the outcome, because complaints against officers are often dealt with in-house and away from the public. This means that if someone files a complaint against an officer, the agency they are employed by—whose rules, policies and procedures they are sworn to abide by—investigates and determines whether the complaint was founded or not. Even more crucially, that agency determines what action, if any, to take in response.
This is why civilian oversight is a necessary part of our public safety system. Simply put, it brings community members into the review process and gives them the ability to make recommendations. We can trust that an investigation against a police officer is being handled fairly because our neighbors are reviewing it, too. In doing so, civilian oversight allows law enforcement agencies to become more transparent and accountable for their actions, as well as responsive to the needs and concerns of their communities.
On Oct. 25, the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement (AADM) hosted a dinner and discussion around civilian oversight and police reform. During this event, one attendee voiced that they had had only good interactions with Athens police officers and believed improvements were unnecessary.
Over the years, the AADM has received several serious complaints from Athens citizens about members of our criminal justice system, from the excessive use of force and discriminatory practices by law enforcement officers to poor jail conditions experienced by inmates. Many of the complainants came to us because their voices were not being heard or concerns were not fully addressed after filing a complaint with the proper law enforcement agency. Some reached out to our organization first due to fear of retaliation against them or their loved ones. And their reasons for feeling that way are plausible.
According to the Police Scorecard, in Georgia from 2016–2021, only 19% of the 3,665 civilian complaints of police misconduct were ruled in favor of civilians. Those statistics also show that between 2013–2021, a Black person was nearly twice as likely to be killed by a police officer than a white person, and the Latinx population was also disproportionately affected.
While some may believe that there are no issues or inequities in policing, these statistics and community complaints suggest otherwise. It is clear, at the very least, that the line of trust between law enforcement and a portion of our community is broken, especially when it comes to Athens’ more marginalized neighborhoods. This is where civilian oversight is vital—bridging gaps and ensuring our public safety systems work for everyone.
That’s why it’s important for the Classic City to support the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board (PSCOB). In November of last year, after AADM and several community leaders in Athens led the push, the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted unanimously to create the PSCOB to oversee several public safety departments. After being appointed this year, the PSCOB underwent orientation with the various departments and offices involved so that they could gain a better understanding of how these departments operate and where improvements need to be made. Overall, those meetings were productive and positive; departments have been forthcoming with information and responsive to the board’s questions and concerns. They are now in the process of creating their board’s bylaws—rules and procedures that will guide the Board through their important work.
True change, however, only happens when we come together to support it. We need our community to back the nine members of the PSCOB by attending these meetings and demonstrating that we are interested and dedicated to fostering transparency and accountability in policing in Athens. The PSCOB meetings are open to the public to attend and observe. The next meeting will be on Nov. 16 from 5:30–7:30 p.m. at Athens City Hall.
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