Residents Of Athens-Clarke County Clash Over Calls To Cut Police Budget
On the steps of Athens-Clarke County City Hall on Tuesday evening, protesters clashed. A plan proposed by two local commissioners to re-envision and redistribute funds within the Athens-Clarke County Police Department has brought heated responses from citizens, both in favor and in opposition of these changes.
District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker is proposing an amendment to the recommended budget that would jumpstart this proposal, called the 50/10 plan. Parker, in partnership with District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson, is proposing a $50,000 reallocation of funds. These funds would be spent to develop a plan that over a 10-year period would result in a 50% decrease in the size of ACCPD.
Hundreds of citizens lined up to give public input on the 2021 proposed county budget starting at 6 p.m. By 9 p.m., people remained in line. Each citizen was given three minutes to speak into a camera as the mayor and commission watched virtually.
The 50/10 plan would replace traditional policing with mental health programs and professionals to work on the front lines. An immediate goal is the addition of a third co-responder unit, which pairs an officer with a case worker trained to respond to situations where suspects suffer with mental health issues — ACCPD currently has two of these units.
On top of redistributing existing budgets for law enforcement operations, the plan proposes savings — such as delaying new vehicle purchases and keeping new job positions vacant for 120 days — in order to achieve a lofty $263,000 in funds. These funds would be used to hire mental health professionals and social workers, as well as increase salaries and resources for local Public Defenders. Parker and Denson also demand reforms to Emergency Medical Services operations to “increase efficiency … accountability and transparency.”
Additional proposals include a total of $3.8 million for new initiatives and positions across county departments and services.
A group of protesters first gathered in front of city hall around 3 p.m. Organized by local youth Chris Xavier and activist Imani Scott-Blackwell, the group discussed their own grievances with the Athens-Clarke County budget. Many held up Black Lives Matter signs.
A second group of protesters supporting ACCPD showed up an hour before the vote. Many waved American flags and chanted “All Lives Matter” in opposition.
“You want a proposal?” yelled Athens-Clarke County GOP Chairman, Gordon Rhoden, through a megaphone. “Let's give them a raise.”
During the 2020 fiscal year, $22,147 were allocated toward police service salaries. The 2021 recommended budget raises that by $146.
Both groups came in close contact on the City Hall steps as the situation escalated. At one point, Xavier was pushed down the stairs by an unidentified man as they held a speaker in an attempt to overpower a speech by Rhoden. Officers on the other side of the street did not respond but the incident was caught on film by several protesters, and they were asked to send any evidence to ACCPD if interested in pressing charges.
Calls to defund and dismantle local police departments have been growing across the nation. Amidst frustration for these types of claims, many citizens in opposition to the 50/10 plan suggested the opposite, proposing raises for local law enforcement officers and a redistribution of funds to further financially support ACCPD.
“I think there's enough money in Clarke County if appropriated right, that instead of spent on frivolous things, we could hire more mental health professionals,” Rhoden said. “I would be in support of that idea, if you're not taking money from the regular police officers to fund that new position.”
Blackwell and Xavier encouraged attendees to consider an alternate plan. The Athens People’s Budget — an unofficial proposal for a way in which the local mayor and commission could reallocate it’s budget — suggests that the key to a safer community lies in a redistribution of funds to vulnerable communities.
“If we're going to address public safety, then we need to address the poverty in this community and get money in the hands of the people that need it,” Scott-Blackwell said.
According to the 2020 Athens-Clarke County budget, ACCPD received $21,929,255 in general fund money, a 3.3% decrease from the previous year. In comparison, the housing and development sector received $3,299,505 in general fund money.
“I get that the funding and abolishment are some big words,” Xavier said. “I know for a lot of people … they don’t know what a world without police looks like. I've never seen a world without police. But that doesn't mean we can't think about it.”
Messaging on both sides went beyond just the scope of the local government budget. During public commenting that lasted roughly five hours, Athens-Clarke County residents brought up the murder of Georgia Floyd, systemic racism and mental illness.
The commission will vote on the final budget on Thursday, June 25 after a motion to delay the vote.