Athens group mobilizes for creation of civilian police oversight board

Community members, activists and Athens-Clarke officials rallied outside City Hall on Monday to voice their support for the establishment of a civilian police oversight board.

“This is not a fight to destroy the Athens Police Department, it’s a fight to make it better,” said Mokah Jasmine Johnson, chairwoman of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Various speakers at the rally organized by the AADM shared similar sentiments, describing the council as a significant step in building trust between the community and the police. The rally started at City Hall and moved to the courthouse with speakers at both locations.

“This is an effort to build a bridge and create trust, transparency and accountability, and to get community members involved,” Johnson said.

The Supervisory Board has been under construction for a long time, it took 2 years of advocacy to reach its current stage.

Chaplain Cole Knapper, a military veteran and community activist, said on the surface Athens appears like a hip college town.

“But the truth is that Athens has always had a dark side that many of us are just beginning to struggle with,” she said.

In 2019, local advocacy groups began speaking out more about the misuse of police force and the rising rate of incarcerated black and brown men and women, she said.

Video footage of a 10-year-old boy being restrained by Athens-Clarke police in 2018, and tear gas used against protesters last year, were also revealing, Knapper said.

“These incidents reveal that there are deep-rooted and broken bonds of trust between members of the marginalized community and the Athens-Clarke County Police Department,” she said.

The proposed board model includes a controller, a full-time independent salaried employee, and a 12-13 member civilian oversight board.

Robert Foster, of the Oconee Street United Methodist Church’s Racial Justice Task Force, said supporters of a review board were not anti-police.

“We are pro-community police who are involved with us and understand the issues of communities that suffer at the hands of the police,” Foster said. “Until that changes, we’re going to keep protesting, we’re going to keep saying we need justice in the streets.”

Commissioner Tim Denson said the oversight board was a step in building trust with the police. He said the board’s proposal would be on the agenda for the October 19 session and should be presented to the mayor and commission on November 2 for a vote.

The mayor and commission are also voting on setting up alternative response teams on Tuesday night.

Denson said the council will be made up of non-police officers, be independent and answerable to the mayor and commission, and all voting members will receive a stipend.

He said the recommendation grew to include the Athens-Clarke County Department of Corrections for the city jail and the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department for the jail and courthouse.

Denson said the proposal was just one step toward racial justice, but it was important for people to push for policies like this to succeed. He said supporters of the oversight board will have to show up on Nov. 2 to make sure their voices are heard.

“You can’t get good policy passed just because you have good elected officials trying to do the right thing,” he said. “You only get and pass good policy when you have people working on the outside, demanding justice, holding people accountable and making sure policy is created and passed. And that’s what you do all here today.”

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