Police oversight board passes unanimously with strong public support

The ACC Commission established a civilian board which will provide oversight of police and other law enforcement agencies in Athens unanimously last week after nearly two hours of public comment.

The Public Safety Oversight Board will receive complaints about alleged police misconduct and review ACCPD internal investigations. They will engage the public by holding regular meetings and they’ll also make recommendations about police policy to the mayor and commission. The goal of the board is to provide accountability for local law enforcement and therefore help to improve community trust.

The board was originally recommended by a task force formed by Mayor Kelly Girtz and was further developed in the ACC Commission’s Government Operations Committee before finally being considered by the full commission last week.

Crowd outside city hall for police oversight vote
A crowd gathered outside city hall to express their thoughts on the proposed police oversight board.

Public comments were strongly in favor of oversight

In recent months, public comment at mayor and commission meetings has leaned conservative, with most speakers opposing the priorities of progressive commissioners which has included police oversight, an official homeless camp and a public restroom downtown.

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But things were different at the November 2 meeting.

Conservatives were outnumbered this time by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and other progressives who showed up in force to support the oversight board which has been a major policy goal of theirs for years. 

The commission heard forty-eight comments on the Public Safety Oversight Board in total. Forty were in favor with only eight opposed.

Public comment on the Public Safety Oversight Board and other topics.

According to one speaker, “[the oversight board] will offer legitimacy that internal accountability and review mechanisms are not currently offering. Civilian oversight will operate outside of the chain of command, allowing any findings of the oversight board to be free of real or perceived biases that are the source of much of the current distrust.”

Mokah Jasmine-Johnson
Mokah Jasmine Johnson

Mokah Jasmine Johnson, co-founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, also spoke in favor of the oversight board.

“One too many times, we have watched police officers walk away without repercussions after causing harm to Black and brown lives. Such as [ACCPD] Officer Saulters winning a $250,000 lawsuit after using his vehicle to stop a suspect from fleeing the scene, causing harm. In 2020, the tear-gassing incident left a serious taste of distrust and division within our community. What about the six police shootings in 2019?”

Despite urging the board’s passage, Johnson told the commission that “it was disappointing to see the GOC [Government Operations Committee] disregard the task force recommendations,” referring to the recent changes made to the oversight board in committee.

Others have noticed these changes as well.

Bill Crane, a board member of the conservative community group Athens Classic, told APN that while he felt additional civilian oversight of police was not needed in Athens, “the [current] version of the ordinance … did deal with several of our major concerns. As proposed, the Review Board would serve in an advisory capacity… The Chief of Police, Sheriff and County Manager would each have voice and ex-officio membership on the board.”

ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill
ACCPD Chief Cleveland Spruill

ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill, who vehemently objected to the original task force recommendations for the oversight board, wrote commissioners ahead of the vote withdrawing those objections.

“I have always believed that, if constructed in a non-adversarial manner, with the proper balance, purpose and intent, Citizen Advisory Boards can be positive and effective tools at increasing transparency, holding police agencies accountable and at improving trust, understanding and relationships between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.”

Spruill then added that he supports the current proposal “with a few reservations” which he felt could be worked out while the board is being created.

Two last-minute changes that weren’t made

Commissioner Mariah Parker, a strong supporter of police oversight, drafted an amendment to the oversight board proposal in the spirit of the original task force recommendations.

Commissioner Mariah Parker
Commissioner Mariah Parker

Parker suggested two changes:

  1. Prohibiting police officers, their immediate family members and others with a conflict of interest from serving on the board.
  2. Limiting the law enforcement community to one ex-officio member to represent all agencies (including the ACC Police Department, Sheriff’s Office, Probation Services and the Department of Corrections), instead of one ex-officio member per agency.

In an email to her colleagues, Parker explained why she supported these changes:

“The outsized presence of law enforcement representatives on the board may… result in civilian appointees feeling afraid to give their unvarnished opinion…. It is critical that appointees, who may themselves be healing from the traumas of state violence and have valuable perspectives to share from this experience, feel safe to share their criticisms,” she wrote.

However, Parker ultimately chose not to bring her changes to a vote.

A unanimous vote and looming controversy

In the end, there was broad agreement on the commission for moving forward with the Public Safety Oversight Board. The proposal passed 9-0 with Commissioner Ovita Thornton absent. Another initiative supported by the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, the Human Relations Commission, also passed unanimously at this meeting.

Protesters against civilian oversight of police
Those who opposed police oversight were also present outside city hall last Tuesday night.

Nevertheless, the oversight board seems likely to remain as controversial as ever. Those who support robust oversight of police will view the board’s passage as a win, but the unanimous vote was only possible because some critical details have yet to be worked out. For example, the ordinance passed last week did not provide for any new staff members to assist the oversight board. The commission is relying on the oversight board itself to determine the level of staffing support they will need to carry out their duties.

If the oversight board advocates for the original task force recommendation of three staff members to support their work, they may run into pushback from some commissioners or more conservative members of the public. Likewise, the composition of the board may also become controversial. When picking the oversight board’s members, if the commission nominates some who were on the original task force, they’ll likely hear from Spruill whose relationship with the task force was far from amicable.

Due to several compromises that were made in committee, it remains to be seen if the oversight board will be capable of providing the robust oversight its supporters hope.

Upcoming votes

Next week, the commission will vote on the contracts to run both the eviction prevention program (i.e. Athens’ version of “Project Reset”) and the official homeless camp. These votes were originally scheduled for the November 2 meeting but have been pushed back to November 16.

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