The ACC Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board has recently expressed a profound sense of distrust and dismay with, in the words of one board member, the “bureaucratic evasiveness” of some elected officials who have denied their request to be present during relevant job interviews, have failed to guarantee the board a minimum staffing level or a dedicated budget, and, in their view, seem content to allow the ACC Police Department to investigate themselves.
The oversight board’s current state
The ACC Commission created the Public Safety Oversight Board in 2021 to receive complaints about alleged police misconduct and to review ACCPD internal investigations. The goal of the board is to provide accountability for ACCPD and other agencies and therefore help to improve community trust in law enforcement.
Civilian oversight of police has been a goal for activists at the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement for years, but the idea hasn’t always been viewed positively by police or by local conservative groups. For example, former ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill stridently objected to the oversight board at first, but withdrew his objections after some changes were made to the proposed ordinance. Members of the Athens Republican Party have also spoken out against the board during public comment in recent years.
The ACC Commission voted unanimously to support the police oversight board in 2021, but that was possible only because some critical details had yet to be fleshed out. Most importantly, the 2021 ordinance did not specify the hiring of any new staff members to support the oversight board. At that time, commissioners wanted to wait until after the board was formed so they could be advised about the number of full-time staff members the board felt would be appropriate.
Today, the oversight board would be lucky to get even one dedicated, part-time staffer to support their work. That’s because the commission has taken a sharp turn to the right after Republicans gerrymandered Athens’ commission districts in 2022.
The oversight board’s current state
The Public Safety Civilian Oversight board has been meeting for about a year. In that time, they’ve received training from police, they’ve worked on their bylaws and they decided on recommendations for their yet-to-be-hired staff assistant, a position known as the “monitor.”
Cassie Evans, Chair of the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board, told APN that her board drafted a job description for a full-time monitor position and passed it onto the ACC Commission’s Government Operations Committee. This committee will change the job description as they see fit before passing it on to the full commission for adoption.
The fox guarding the hen house?
Evans says her oversight board recommended that anyone with prior affiliation to ACCPD, the Sheriff’s Office or any other division of ACC law enforcement not be considered for the monitor position, because “there is a chance that they would side with the people they are investigating.” Evans feels it would be a conflict of interest for a former ACC Police Officer, for example, to serve in the role of monitor.
However, during the last Government Operations Committee meeting, there was broad agreement among commissioners that this conflict-of-interest clause would be removed from the monitor’s job description.
Commissioner Patrick Davenport, Chair of the Government Operations Committee, wants to remove this clause, thereby allowing “the fox [to guard] the hen house” in the words of one member of the oversight board, because of how the monitor’s position will be structured.
The monitor will likely become a part of the Office of Operational Analysis and would fall under the purview of the new Internal Auditor, when one is finally hired. The Internal Auditor’s position is currently vacant, and the commission will be interviewing candidates for that role later this year. Since the Internal Auditor has an array of other duties, far beyond acting as a monitor of the police department, Davenport is reluctant to narrow the pool of applicants for the Auditor’s position based on the needs of this one citizen oversight board.
Members of the oversight board feel that this perspective, while surely accurate, might fail to secure a necessary level of independence for the monitor.
The oversight board is not guaranteed a full-time staffer
The oversight board is asking for at least one full-time monitor to support their work. However, at the last Government Operations Committee meeting Commissioner Mike Hamby questioned whether the monitor should be a full-time position. He wondered if there would be enough work to support a full-time monitor, given that ACCPD only had seven formal complaints all year in 2022.
Commissioner Dexter Fisher, who is the commission’s representative on the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board, agreed with Hamby. “Will there be enough complaints out there for the monitor to really have a full-time job?” Fisher asked. “I have not seen any of the complaints.”
According to Evans, the number of complaints might be low because people may feel uncomfortable complaining about the police to the police. “If they make a complaint, then they are afraid that the police officers will retaliate against them,” Evans said.
The Government Operations Committee has not yet made their recommendation regarding staffing levels for the Office of Operational Analysis moving forward, but they seem likely to continue with the existing two positions under the Internal Auditor, both of which are currently vacant, and not recommend a third full-time position.
That means the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board will probably not even have a single dedicated staff member supporting their work in 2023, and they may never receive one.
“We’re not being set up for success,” Evans told APN. “If there isn’t a person working full time for this board, it will ultimately fail. That happened in Memphis. All of the people working on their oversight board were volunteers, and it ultimately failed.”
Lee Reid, Executive Director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, gave a presentation to his counterparts in Athens earlier this month in which he recommended two full-time positions for the Athens board, at a minimum.
“You can’t do this work off the side of your desk,” Reid said. “This can be complex work that requires daily attention.”
The Atlanta oversight board has eight full-time staff members including Reid, and is authorized to have as many as twelve.
The oversight board is not allowed to sit in on interviews for the monitor
The Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board has made the extraordinary request that they be allowed to sit in on interviews for the Internal Auditor, which is an officer position as listed in the ACC Charter. They made this request because the commission will likely give the monitor’s duties to the Internal Auditor as discussed above, a fact which complicates the situation.
Mayor Kelly Girtz’s answer was much less complicated. He has flatly denied this request.
While Girtz offered to ask any question the oversight board wants him to ask during the interviews for Internal Auditor, they will not be allowed to sit in. Unfortunately, the board does not seem to trust that Girtz will ask their questions. Board members are struggling to trust in ACC’s slow, bureaucratic processes while at the same time feeling disapproval from some of the more conservative commissioners.
During their January meeting, the oversight board continually pushed for Girtz to allow them to sit in on the monitor interviews.
“We’re rooted in the trust of the community,” Evans pleaded. “We’re not saying we want to be the ones asking the questions, but we want to be able to observe at least. If we’re missing from that process, there’s a disconnect there.”
For about an hour, Girtz continued to politely refuse the oversight board’s request that they be allowed to sit in on interviews for the Internal Auditor’s position.
In Atlanta, Reid said that not only does the oversight board sit in on staff interviews, but that they run those interviews and even do the hiring themselves.
After their January meeting, Oversight board members were left feeling discouraged and dismayed. They said they felt “hopeless,” that things were “out of our control,” and even that the entire oversight board was “a facade.”
One board member said that she “really want[s] to trust the government to do what we’re asking, but I don’t have that trust. And I don’t know how to get there.”
Fisher told APN that he is concerned about the lack of trust shown by some members of the oversight board. “I want them to be successful,” Fisher said. “If mistrust is there, then we’ve got to gain that trust. We’ve got to work together and make it better.”
In its current state, the board will not be able to serve as a bridge between the police department and the rest of the community. How could they act to improve community trust, if they lack trust themselves?
Evans says that she doesn’t understand why her board is being sidelined by the local government.
“It’s been a pleasant experience [serving on the board]. We’re learning a lot. I would like to believe that everyone we have jurisdiction over is doing a great job. I would like to highlight their work. I don’t understand the resistance. I’m just looking to do the job I’ve been asked to do,” Evans said.
Whether Evans and the rest of the oversight board will have the support they need to do their jobs will likely be decided soon. The Government Operations Committee will make an official recommendation for staffing and budget levels for the board over their next meeting or two, meaning the full commission might decide on this matter as soon as April or possibly May.
But even in a best-case scenario, the board’s work could not begin in earnest until an Internal Auditor is hired and that person hires for their office’s open positions as well. That means it could be a year before the oversight board can do much of anything. And that’s in a best-case scenario – it’s also possible the new Internal Auditor will not take police oversight responsibilities seriously, since it has never been a part of the role before and is not written in the ACC Charter. It’s also possible they will take it seriously but not have the staff to be effective.
In either case, the Public Safety Civilian Oversight Board will continue existing only as an empty shell.
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