I wrote last week about the brush off that I got from my Congressperson after I wrote to him about supporting gun control measures in the wake of the Orlando, Florida shooting at the Pulse nightclub that targeted the LGBTQIA community. Like I said there, it was a boilerplate response that was likely written by someone on Jody Hice’s staff and sent out to every constituent who contacted him about the shooting, whether in support of his terrorism narrative or in opposition to it. I’m sure Hice signed off on it, but it’s doubtful that he looked at every bit of correspondence he received on the issue.
The whole experience was disheartening, though not really surprising.
Now, let’s contrast that with something I tried after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In the wake of those events, I wrote my local representative, Andy Herod, on the city commission where I live. Police use of excessive force is an issue that’s best tackled locally, because the policies guiding any individual department can vary widely. Those shootings happened in places far away from where I live, but I wanted to take some time to learn about what local police do to minimize the possibility of shootings and how they deal with complaints on their officers.
The Athens-Clarke County police department has a listing on its website for its Professional Responsibility Unit, which is a division within the department that handles investigations into complaints about officer behavior. At the time I was looking into this, there was no mention on the page about whether there was an external independent agency that oversees investigations. That was the main point of my email to my representative, and I asked that he bring this issue up to the commission and the mayor for discussion and possible solutions.
A couple days later, he responded to me with an email chain showing correspondence between him and the local Chief of Police, R. Scott Freeman. Here’s the body of what Freeman said:
Thank you for the opportunity to respond and provide input to Mr. Jones concerns. I truly understand his concerns, as they are mine as well. Please feel free to forward my email, or provide the information as you deem appropriate.
1) While it is not on our website, all officer involved shooting incidents will immediately be turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI). That will always be the procedure under my leadership as Chief of Police. The GBI will take the lead on doing the actual investigation and will submit the findings to the District Attorney. I, nor any member of the Athens-Clarke County Police Department (ACCPD), will be involved with the investigation conducted by the GBI. While the ACCPD Internal Affairs Unit will conduct an internal investigation, it will focus on policy compliance and training only. Our internal investigation will be separate and apart from any GBI investigation. The two investigations are not the same, and the GBI will be the lead investigative agency to hold officers accountable should their actions not be warranted or justified under the law. In addition, any allegations of wrongdoing, not just officer involved shootings, will be investigated by the GBI. Should the GBI not be available to conduct such investigations, I will request the Federal Bureau of Investigation to step in and conduct such investigations. The aforementioned steps are absolutely essential in building trust and confidence in the ACCPD, and my commitment is that we will always hold ourselves accountable by deferring such investigations to the GBI or FBI.
2) Policies and procedures are not currently posted on our website; however, that will soon change. In my commitment to this community, I offer 100% transparency. We are currently in the process of writing new policies and procedures. We have contracted with DLG, which is a law firm that assists the U.S. Department of Justice with federal consent decree oversight, and has a foundation of constitutional policing. Since being appointed as Chief, I made the decision to implement all new policies that are grounded in community-oriented, problem-oriented, and constitutional policing. As such, the ACCPD will soon have all new policies. As we get those policies completed, we will be taking a giant leap in transparency by posting our policies and procedures online and making those available to the public. This should be completed by the end of this year.
3) In addressing transparency even further, I will always be transparent in all that we do. Almost all of our police officers now have body cameras that are required wear. When any such incident occurs, my commitment is that the body camera footage will be released, and very soon thereafter. Unlike most, I take my commitment of transparency seriously and will not hide or shield such videos from release. In addition, I will avail myself and members of the department to immediately start releasing information, answering questions, and keeping our community informed with real-time information and updates. As an example, during the last officer involved shooting here, I held a news conference and released the officer’s body camera footage in just over 12 hours after the shooting. I took additional steps and met with the family before that video release took place. In every case where there is an incident that creates a situation whereby the department needs to release body camera footage, it is my commitment to the community to release the video. I firmly believe that the community deserves to see it. We are, after all, public servants and we are their police department.
Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address Mr. Jones and his concerns.
This reply was written by Freeman, and it outlines what policies he’s put in place to directly answer my concerns. He said up front that any investigations into officer misconduct will be referred to the GBI or, if they’re unable to commit resources to an investigation, to the FBI. On the subject of policy not being readily available on the ACC website, he said that they’re in process of drafting updated policy and should have it posted by the end of the calendar year (I’ll have to check back in periodically to see if he follows through on that promise).
The difference in responses is vast.