Decisive vote coming for civilian oversight of police

After years of work, the proposed civilian oversight board for the ACC Police Department and other law enforcement agencies is finally up for a commission vote. The original idea for this board was controversial, but it’s undergone significant changes recently. Even so, at least one commissioner seems to be having second thoughts about supporting it:

What changed in committee, and how likely is the current version to pass on November 2? 

Table of Contents

Changes made in committee
Will it pass?
How to give a public comment


The Public Safety Oversight Board (formerly known as the Police Oversight Board) would receive complaints about alleged police misconduct and review ACCPD internal investigations. They would also engage the public, holding regular meetings and would make recommendations about police policy to the mayor and commission. Their goal would be to provide accountability for local law enforcement and therefore help to improve community trust.

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The oversight board was recommended by Mayor Kelly Girtz’s Police Advisory Board Development Task Force in February. Soon after, Girtz assigned the commission’s Government Operations Committee the task of reviewing and refining the task force’s recommendations, which they did over the following months.

The proposed board became controversial when Police Chief Cleveland Spruill withdrew his support, telling the Government Operations Committee that he had no confidence in “any recommendation” coming from the development task force. This led Mokah Jasmine Johnson, co-chair of the task force, to accuse Spruill of “try[ing] to sabotage” the oversight board.

The Athens GOP has also spoken out against the task force’s recommendations. The original recommendation gave the oversight board the power to examine the police department’s funding, something which GOP members oppose. They have also objected to proposed restrictions on the make-up of the board in the original recommendations (e.g. the ban on law enforcement officers and their representatives from serving).

Johnson and the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement held a rally on October 4 to protest the board’s slow progress through committee (approval by Government Operations took seven months) and to push for the recommendations to be implemented.

What changes were made in committee?

Government Operations made significant changes to the task force’s original recommendations in committee and have delayed making one other decision which will impact the board’s effectiveness (check out the current version here). 

The biggest changes

Expanding the board’s focus

The task force’s original recommendations only mentioned the police department as the agency over which the board would provide oversight, but Government Operations added the Sheriff’s Office and Department of Corrections as well. This expanded focus is the reason why they changed the name to “Public Safety Oversight Board.”

Reducing the call for diversity in board membership

The original recommendations put a fine point on the composition of the oversight board, emphasizing the need for diversity. More importantly, they emphasized a need for a specific kind of diversity. They said it was important to include people who “have lived experience with police violence or over-policing” or who are “from communities experiencing the most frequent contact” with police.

The policy passed by Government Operations removes this language, reducing this section to a simple call for diversity including age, race, socioeconomic status and other characteristics.

Removing restrictions on board membership

While the task force’s recommendations included a specific ban on police and representatives of police from serving on the board, this ban was removed in committee. In fact, Government Operations specifically mentions three law enforcement officers who will be non-voting members of the board: the ACC Chief of Police, Sheriff and Warden. The ACC Attorney and one member of the commission will also be non-voting members.

Other board members will be chosen by the mayor and commission in the same manner as are members of other local government boards and authorities.

Removing police budgeting as an area of focus

The original recommendations explicitly mentioned that the board would have the authority to “make budget recommendations pertaining to the ACCPD.” This was removed from the final version; police budgeting is no longer mentioned. The board’s authority is now limited to making recommendations for “improving the ability of officers to carry out their duties,” possibly meaning that recommendations for increasing funding would be accepted whereas advocating for reduced funding would not.

Delaying a decision on the board’s staffing and budgetary needs

The task force originally called for a minimum of one full time employee (called the “auditor / monitor”) to be hired to assist the oversight board, with two additional employees (a data analyst and a community outreach staffer) who could be part-time. The Government Operations Committee could not come to an agreement on this and declined to make a decision. They are asking for the oversight board itself to weigh in on how much staffing support they would need after convening and with a careful consideration of their responsibilities.

The Government Operations Committee did not approve any funding so far for the board beyond a $25 per meeting attendance stipend for each member. 

Other changes

  • Reducing the size of the board to nine voting members from 11 and two alternates.
  • Lengthening member terms to four years from two years and removing the two term limit on membership.

The board maintains the authority to receive and examine complaints about police from the public, to recommend changes to police procedure and to recommend discipline of police officers if they are found to have abused their authority.

Will the oversight board pass?

The vote to approve or reject the oversight board may be a close one.

Despite significant changes to the task forces’ recommendations, the commission’s left bloc remains firmly in support of the idea. Even so, it’s unclear if the board will pass after Commissioner Russell Edwards expressed ambivalence towards it recently on Twitter and Athens News Matters (Edwards sometimes acts as a swing vote between the commission’s left and moderate blocs).

On the other hand, with Commissioners Tim Denson, Mariah Parker and Jesse Houle in support, the board could pass without Edward’s vote with just two additional votes (for example, Commissioners Carol Myers and Melissa Link). In the case of a 5-5 tie, the mayor would make the final call. Girtz, who convened the task force originally, seems likely to vote yes.

APN considers the chance of the oversight board passing to be extremely good, but it’s not guaranteed.

How to give a public comment

There’s still time to make your voice heard on the ACC Public Safety Oversight Board. If you would like to comment on it, you can do so using this form (the oversight board is item #13) or by showing up in person at city hall (301 College Ave) for the commission meeting on Tuesday, November 2 at 6 pm.

Due to ongoing restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, you may only be allowed to enter the commission chamber just before making a comment. Masks are required. There are TVs set up  for viewing on the steps of city hall as well as inside the building. Keep an eye on them so you’ll know when to line up outside the commission chamber for comment. 

There are three opportunities for public comment. The first happens at the very beginning of the meeting, but it’s only for items on the “consent agenda” which commissioners are in full agreement about. The last happens at the end of the meeting (probably around 10 pm), and you can speak about anything you want at that time. The second opportunity for input (the one on “old and new business”) is the one we’re interested in, which usually comes sometime between ten and 30 minutes after the start of the meeting.

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