Calls for police reform in Athens have resulted in compromise and hopes for bigger plans to come.

By Sofi Gratas

Athens had already seen tense protests in city streets-with tear gas and non-lethal ammunition aimed at marchers by the time activists were crowding City Hall in June.

In the wake of the killing by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, people waited for hours for their chance to comment on the 2021 budget which would determine how Athens-Clarke County might change policing in the city.

The city had been having serious conversations about public safety reform on the heels of those protests. At the budget hearings, Chris Xavier wanted to be heard.

“I have patriotism in my veins, but because I love my country, but because I love my city and because I love these people, I cannot stand aside and let them starve while we endorse a system that kills them,” Xavier said during a protest outside City Hall.

Xavier and others had taken up a call heard in many American cities in the wake of police violence against Black people: Defund the Police. Some fear that means cities without any law enforcement. Others say it’s a call to reimagine the roles of law enforcement in our communities. In Athens-Clarke County, it has meant eventual compromise and intense conversations about how the county should address reform.

The context for conversations around defunding law enforcement is a history of police violence against Black and mentally ill people that has left deep wounds.

In 2018, Athens-Clarke County Police Department officers twice used force on Black residents in separate incidents which resulted in skepticism from the community, as well as low morale within the department. In 2019, there were six officer-involved shootings by police. Victims of these shootings included a 54-year-old woman brandishing a knife, a 28-year-old man who attacked an officer with a machete and a 34-year-old man with an air-soft gun — there were clear signs of mental health issues in all of these cases. All six incidents were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

After a protest on May 31 where officers fired tear gas and beanbag rounds at peaceful protesters downtown, two Athens commissioners, Mariah Parker and Tim Denson, responded with something called the 50/10 plan.

“While I am an abolitionist and believe that one day a world without police is possible, I don't know what that world looks like,” said Parker.

The plan called for a modest cut in the police department budget. The big idea was reducing the size of the force by about half, some 160 officers, over 10 years, and then replacing that half of the force with mental health professionals.

This was not the first time the Athens-Clarke government had talked about reimagining public safety. In 2019, the mayor and commission agreed to “explore alternatives” for police response, recommending a transition of one-third of police to unarmed crisis intervention officers over five years.

But back then, that conversation was happening without protests in the streets. Parker said this time, public pressure might have gotten in the way of 50/10

“I think people got freaked out by the uprising,” Parker said. “The fact that people were taking to the streets in such massive numbers, texting them and calling them and sending them emails, and they got information overload and sort of dug their heels in.”

Commissioner Melissa Link was a voice for a larger, more moderate bloc of the county commission. She said when she fully backed away from Parker’s plan, the phone calls from activists turned threatening.

“How are you going to convince people that you don't need police when you're going to threaten people to the point where they need police?” Link said. “It's counterproductive to their movement and messaging.”

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz was consistent with his opinion on 50/10 leading up to the budget vote. Safe communities can be achieved through the implementation of better housing, health care and a strong economy, he said. Girtz was less sure what having fewer officers alone would add.
“You absolutely have to look at law enforcement functionality,” Girtz said. “But it just can't be examined in isolation.”

Eventually, Parker’s vision for police reform was shelved, but only after a version of it failed in the final budget vote, 6-3. Instead, a compromise was adopted.

In the new budget, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department will still receive the biggest chunk of county money. There will be no decrease in patrol officers.

But there will be a third mental health crisis responder on the police force, still far short of the nearly 160 mental health positions the 50/10 plan would have created.  And there will be a $1 million Public Safety and Community Building Task Force to conduct research and develop a plan to tackle economic and racial injustices in the community.

“The challenge with beginning a conversation by saying this much percent in this many years, is that it jumps past all of those granular questions, which are essential questions,” Girtz said. “What I don't want to do is unnecessarily cloud the conversation, sort of with a preordained metric, when we're not quite there yet.”

Parker wants people from within the Black Lives Matter movement on the task force, which is expected to begin work in the fall.