August 5, 2015

Tanks and Tasers: A Q&A With New Athens Police Chief Scott Freeman

Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones

Athens, there’s a new sheriff in town. OK, OK, technically he’s the police chief, but he’s still new.

Scott Freeman was hired away from the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office in June to replace the Athens-Clarke County Police Department’s chief for 17 years, Jack Lumpkin, who left for Savannah in November. Freeman has 25 years of experience in law enforcement, rising from dispatcher to major with Conyers police before taking over the No. 2 job at the sheriff’s department.

Freeman’s not a Bulldog—he holds degrees from Mercer and the online Walden University—but he’s no stranger to Athens, either. With Conyers PD, he studied our parking meters and downtown cameras, and he’s attended training classes here, as well as the funeral of slain officer Buddy Christian in 2011, too. “I’ve always felt an attachment here,” he says. “I’ve always liked it here.”

Freeman shares Lumpkin’s philosophy of community-oriented policing, but he’s also quick to add that he won’t be coddling criminals. Flagpole recently met him at a local coffee shop—he likes to get out of the office, he says—to ask him about the militarization of police, police brutality against African Americans and other law-enforcement issues locally and nationwide.

Flagpole: You’ve spent your entire career in Rockdale County. It’s a little bit different community than here, more of a bedroom community…

Scott Freeman: It is.

FP: What in your experience has prepared you for more of an urban community, where at the same time we have the university?

SF: That’s a good question. I think it’s more about understanding the dynamics of the community and what it has to offer.

As far as my experience in Rockdale County, we experienced a huge amount of growth in the ‘90s after hosting the Olympic equestrian events and mountain biking, as well. As part of that, having a large influx of people into an event certainly taught me how to manage large crowds. We also, post-Olympics, started having concerts and other events out at the [Georgia International] Horse Park.

So, a little bit of a difference when it comes to policing a college community, but it’s something I will certainly learn from those who are in the positions now. I think exercising restraint in everything we do is important, no matter what sector of the community we are providing police services to.

FP: What is your philosophy of policing?

SF: I’m a firm believer we have to have a firm stance on crime. The criminals we have to deal with effectively to send a message that crime is not going to be tolerated.

On the flip side of that, we have to involve the community in order to address crime issues. Without that trust and confidence and developing legitimacy within the community that we’re are here to provide a service, we would be a failure.

We are not an occupying military force, and we cannot be seen as such. We have to know who we are policing. We have to work with everybody regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status. We have to get into the communities and address crime where it is. And we have to have the citizens’ support to be effective.

FP: There was a little bit of controversy a couple of years ago when the department purchased an armored vehicle…

SF: The Bearcat.

FP: Exactly, which some people referred to as a tank. Is that something you would continue to pursue, this type of equipment?

SF: The Bearcat’s in place, and I will tell you it’s not a tank. I’ve heard that quite a lot myself, but I think it’s very important for people to understand it’s not a tank. It is an armored vehicle, and equipment like that is absolutely essential.

When you look back historically, the equipment that police have access to now is always in response to some type of event. We look at Columbine [the 1999 school shooting in Colorado] as an example. In response to that, police tactics involving school shootings changed. Instead of setting up outside and waiting for a special-response team to arrive, police officers started actively going in. What eventually evolved was "active-shooter response."

One way to look at it is, the police are equipping themselves to be able to handle any threat that comes our way. If we had an incident downtown or were called to assist UGAPD, we have to have the tools to stop any threat.

I don’t see that as militarization. I see it as being able to equip men and women to effectively protect the life that we are sworn to protect and serve. Sometimes, people don’t understand that in a command position, a leadership role, we are sending men and women into dangerous situations—armed persons, situations where there are hostages. We have to give them the equipment they need to succeed, to protect life, and protect their own life as well. As the chief, I will do everything in my power to make sure my people have everything they need to safely do their jobs.

But it’s an absolutely essential conversation to have. We as police have to understand what the citizens’ perspectives are, and also what their expectations are. And this is why communication is so important to me—citizens have to understand what we are trying to achieve by acquiring that type of equipment.

When I was at Rockdale County, we had the opportunity to purchase an MRAP, which is an armored mine-resistant personnel carrier, and I was very much against purchasing an MRAP. The reason why is it was designed specifically for the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I do not believe that military equipment designed for the battlefield should be rolling out in the streets of Athens-Clarke County. But the Bearcat, while it does have military purposes, the Bearcat is designed specifically for civilian law-enforcement use, and I think it serves a very useful purpose. If we responded to something and did not have that type of equipment, ultimately we would be called to answer the question, "Why did you not thoroughly prepare to address this kind of threat?"

FP: Do you plan to continue rolling out tasers to your officers?

SF: I am a believer that tasers play a very crucial role in law enforcement, being able to de-escalate situations. In my own personal experience, the mere unholstering of a taser and telling someone they are about to be tasered has oftentimes effected a drastic change in attitude. Other agencies have seen a drop in the use of force. Suspect injuries have dropped, as well as injuries to officers have dropped.

Tasers are not going to be used on passive persons. It’s going to be another tool that officers can utilize to do their jobs and protect themselves. I think everybody will be a lot safer as a result of it.

FP: What about all the people who’ve been killed by tasers?

SF: As with anything, there’s no 100 percent guarantee that nothing that’s classified as a "less lethal" weapon will not have serious consequences, leading up to and including death. There have been cases of people dying of using [pepper] spray, of complications, of asphyxiation. A lot of the research I have read has involved those persons who have died have some type of health anomaly, some type of heart condition, or use of some type of drugs was involved. There is no way to cover absolutely every possibility that the officers will face.

One of the things, too, is that once a taser is deployed on a suspect, policy requires immediate medical attention, so that is one of the safeguards we’ll put into place. That’s pretty much standard and best practice for any type of use of force.

FP: Recently crime has been increasing in Athens after falling for a number of years. What do you plan to do about that?

SF: I have seen that. I have seen the CompStat reports. I need to look at how things are operating and gain a better understanding of what the officers are doing and what the leadership is doing to address that… what resources are available and what seems to be the cause of that crime increase.

I know Baltimore, Chicago, a lot of the major cities are seeing crime rates that are higher than they’ve been in two decades, in some cases three decades. I don’t want that to be the case here. [Editor’s note: According to the FBI’s most recent statistics, for the first half of 2014, crime was down in both cities compared to the previous year.]

In these major cities, you’re seeing a lack of confidence in the police to do their job. You see a lack of police legitimacy in those areas. I have not gotten that as I’ve made my way around to meet people in the community. I certainly think, for the most part, there is an extremely high level of confidence in the [ACC] police department.

FP: This has been such a huge issue nationwide, white officers’ violence against African Americans. As a white man, how do you build bridges to minority communities?

SF: I believe having open communication is absolutely the first key to that. You have the African American community, you have Hispanics. There is always going to be diversity in the community, no matter where you are. As the police chief, it’s being willing to sit down and have a conversation with people, individually and in groups. That has always worked very well for me, because people always need to have a voice, no matter where they are in society. That is a very important part of how I want to serve as chief of police. Feedback from the minority community and any part of Athens-Clarke County will help me guide service delivery. As I said earlier, we’re not an occupying military force. Whether you’re African American, Hispanic, Islamic, it doesn’t matter. People need to have confidence in police and their police chief.

FP: Chief Lumpkin, before he left, warned us that he was seeing an uptick in gang activity among very young people due to gang members getting out of jail and recruiting younger members. How will you address that?

SF: I have not been here long enough to actually see a gang problem, although I have been told that same exact information. It is something that I am definitely going to be looking into, as far as how the department is looking into any type of gang activities or threats and developing the appropriate responses.

I was absolutely ecstatic to see that we had the summer youth academy going. We have to be able to reach our youth. We have to have the appropriate programs in place. And it’s not just a police responsibility; it’s a community responsibility to keep our youth from falling into those gangs. They will look to gangs when there is nothing else for them to [join].

FP: It is a community responsibility, and a lot of programs have fallen by the wayside over the years due to budget cuts, for example Leisure Services summer camps. How are you going to work with the school district or other youth organizations to provide those services?

SF: It’s all about bringing them to the table, talking about what we’re seeing happening in the community. What worked in the past might not work in the future. What works in one part of the county might not work in another. Those things need to be tailored. By working with the other department directors, we can identify things we need to focus on and work towards in collaboration. The youth academy, we worked with Athens Transit to provide transportation for kids who otherwise might not have been able to get there.

I absolutely get that everybody cares here. How do we serve and facilitate somebody taking the lead and getting all of those resources together to achieve the common good? That’s the challenge. Everybody has a lot of great ideas, but somebody needs to take the step forward.