ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill stridently objected to recommendations for a civilian oversight board for ACCPD at a recent commission meeting, making it clear that he intends to do everything in his power to stop the board from being created.
What is a civilian oversight board?
A civilian oversight board is an officially-recognized group of residents providing oversight and accountability for local law enforcement. Mayor Kelly Girtz appointed a task force to do research and make suggestions to help guide the creation of such a board over a year ago. This group was co-led by Mokah Jasmine Johnson, co-founder of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, and Shane Sims, program coordinator for People Living in Recovery, with guidance provided by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
The oversight board, guided by an auditor, 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 and budgeting to the mayor and commission.
The task force presented these suggestions to the ACC Commission’s Government Operations committee last week. If approved by the committee, it would be sent to the full commission for a vote which could make this body a reality.
However, Chief Spruill has made it clear that he will do everything in his power to stop that from happening. “There’s no way in good conscience I can support any recommendation that comes out of the developmental task force,” he said.
Who picks the overseers?
Spruill’s objections seem to center on the makeup of the proposed board.
Johnson and the rest of Girtz’s task force are recommending the selection of a diverse group, including diversity of race, age, gender and even work experience. The task force also recommends including people from groups who “experience the most frequent contact with law enforcement.” Furthermore, they say extra consideration should be given to those who are a part of organizations focusing on civil rights and social justice, which would seem to include groups like Johnson’s own Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.
One group who will be barred from membership on the oversight board, if the commission agrees with the task force’s suggestions, are current and former police officers or anyone representing them. Those with current or pending criminal charges would also be denied membership on the board.
Spruill lambasted the membership recommendations, warning that the board would end up with “a strong bias against the police department.” He even claimed, in a bit of hyperbole, that “regular law-abiding citizens are not welcomed on the committee” and that its focus would be to “seiz[e] power and control away from the police department.”
Throughout all of this, Spruill claimed to support oversight boards, saying that they “help to build trust and transparency.”
Spruill explained that throughout the past year while the task force was developing their suggestions, “anyone who wanted to advocate for a fair and impartial board was disrespected and basically forced off of that task force.” During one of their meetings, Spruill says that he himself was asked not to return to the next meeting.
“I felt no voice throughout,” he said.
In a comment to APN, Johnson denied Spruill’s accusations. She says that her group is recommending the creation of a balanced and transparent board capable of addressing the mistrust some community members feel towards police.
The goal of the oversight board, in Johnson’s opinion, is not to seize power but to “keep officers accountable, for there to be transparency and to improve community relations with law enforcement.” Exasperated, she pushed back against Spruill’s comments, asking “how are we trying to take away power because we’re asking for accountability?”
While trying to create balance between the oversight board and police, Johnson maintains that police officers should not be allowed on the board, an idea she called “redundant.”
“You want us to be working with police, to have a relationship with police and on top of that to have them on the board. Where do the people have space to make decisions freely without the influence of police over them?”
Going further, she contradicted some of Spruill’s other claims, insisting that no one had been forced off the task force for ideological reasons. “Mayor Girtz created one of the most diverse groups of people coming from different walks of life with different perspectives. When you have that many diverse people sitting at the table, of course there is going to be disagreement and a lack of understanding at different times.”
She says several people left the task force at various points during the past year for different reasons, but that no one was forced to leave. In fact, some left for the opposite reason given by Spruill, “because they were uncomfortable with Chief Spruill and the over-presence of police on the task force,” she claimed.
Likewise, Johnson says no one asked Spruill not to return to task force meetings. However, there was one meeting in particular when Johnson wanted task force members to “reconnect” without the fighting and disagreement that had become commonplace. She did ask for there to be one meeting where she would try to reestablish peace among task force members without the influence of Spruill, whose voice had become “dominant,” she recalls.
Lastly, Johnson says that she was surprised and upset by Spruill’s strong stance against the oversight board which he expressed at the Government Operations committee meeting, an opinion he did not previously communicate with her.
“I’m disgusted. We spent over a year working on that task force. We advocated for everyone to take a seat and go through this process no matter how uncomfortable it was. We fought all the way through for everyone to stay at that table. At the end, when we’re supposed to be building trust, he decided to try to sabotage the work.”
The Government Operations committee will review the recommendations of the task force and develop their own recommendations for the full commission, a process which could take months.
Notably, it’s possible Spruill will have moved on from his current position as Chief of ACCPD by that time, since he’s already looking for another job. It seems important that whoever ACC Manager Blaine Williams chooses as the next chief will need to more or less agree with the commission on the issue of the oversight board, lest the conflict between community members and police continue.
However, it seems likely that the oversight board will be a sensitive issue for the commission as well. Whatever they decide could have lasting and profound impacts on the future of policing and criminal justice reform in Athens.