Georgia Today: Arbery murder trial shines spotlight on troubled Glynn County law enforcement
Jury selection is underway in the Brunswick trial for three white men accused in the 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black. It’s also a reminder for some residents of a long-broken trust with a police department and other county law enforcement agencies that took almost three months to open an investigation into the 25-year-old's death. This week's Georgia Today podcast delves into the troubled history of Glynn County policing and how the trial may expose the department to even greater national scrutiny.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Jury selection is underway in the Brunswick trial of three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery last year. Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man and former high school football player who was out for a jog in February of 2020, when three men chased him down, saying they believed he was behind a series of break-ins in the neighborhood. One of the men shot him to death. The accused men are former Glynn County police officer Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Roddie Bryan, who filmed the attack on his phone. The graphic images and the videos and the details that emerged about Arbery's killing sparked months of nationwide protests and calls for racial justice and police reform. Now, Brunswick and Glynn County are back in the spotlight as the trial finally ramps up.
[News Tape] 11Alive: Social justice groups are already talking about what the outcome of this trial will mean for Georgia and the country overall. Already so much has changed.
Steve Fennessy: For this podcast, I'm joined by Margaret Coker. She's founder and editor-in-chief of The Current. It's a Coastal Georgia online news site and GPB News partner. Coker spent months digging into 10 years of official Glynn County police and court documents. What she found reveals a striking pattern. According to the documents, despite numerous complaints of officer misconduct on the job, only one Glynn County cop in 10 years has been fired for conduct-related incidents. Cocker's investigation also finds the county's lethargic investigation into Arbery's death is just the latest example of a department that's lost the trust of many residents, especially Glynn County's Black residents. So Margaret, we should say right up front that the county and police department declined to comment on your investigation. So tell us exactly how you reported this story and how you got your hands on — on so many of these documents. What were they and what did they show?
Margaret Coker: We started covering the county with public records requests. We at The Current, we launched last year in September 2020. We're also very intentional about building this nonprofit investigative news organization to help fill the news vacuum that exists in Coastal Georgia. And that news vacuum, I think, is part of the reason why it took so long for an arrest to be made in the Arbery killing. And so we decided to find out how this failure of law and order, how this failure of law enforcement happened, and to see if there were other cases that showed a pattern. We are seeking police records trying to test a hypothesis, that is quite broad and widespread in Brunswick among Brunswick's Black majority community: that police have a tendency to overpolice, that police have an implicit bias against Black people, and that is one of the reasons why arrests were not made immediately in the Arbery case.
[News Tape] NPR News: Many do see this trial in the context of other prominent racial justice cases, which have had a mixed bag of verdicts. Ahmaud Arbery as yet another name on a list that includes Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. And historically, the hundreds who came before, says Bobby Henderson, co-founder of A Better Glynn, a grassroots group formed last year in response to Arbery's killing. "Here we are in the South and we witnessed a lynching. How far are we from 1892? That's what's on the line." Federal prosecutors say Arbery's killing was racially motivated that he was profiled as a Black man running through a predominantly white neighborhood.
Margaret Coker: We gathered documents from both Brunswick police and Glynn County police and in order to have a baseline, we also were collecting records from police in Savannah and Chatham County. We wanted to make sure that — that what we were looking at, we could understand whether what we were seeing was good, bad, ugly or something else altogether. What we found out was that, one: there actually is no law across the state of Georgia that mandates police departments anywhere to keep certain data or not. There is no law in Georgia that actually defines racial profiling. And then when you get down to the weeds here in Glynn County and Brunswick, Glynn County has only retained three years of police — policing data, traffic stops, 911 calls. And what we wanted to do was look at a full decade in order to be able to go through and see patterns under different police chiefs here and see how policing has changed over a long period of time. But with the data that we've collected, everything is very concentrated in the last three years.
Steve Fennessy: Margaret, what made you decide to go back, like, 10 years? What was the reasoning behind picking that specific number of years?
Margaret Coker: Well, we were looking at who was in charge of the justice system here, and that was Jackie Johnson, who was nominated for her position in 2010. So that seems like a pretty good measurement, right? You also had two different police chiefs. There was a period of time that I think Georgia politics have changed. So if you're going to look at both data and personalities and politicians, that seemed about right to us.
Steve Fennessy: So you say that there's no requirement that departments retain data for any — going back any certain amount of time. They can get rid of it almost immediately? How does that work?
Margaret Coker: Yeah. So it's department by department across all 159 counties across Georgia. There is no state law that obligates them to collect a certain amount of data or keep it for a certain amount of time. What happened in Glynn County was there was a scandal that had occurred earlier in the decade that an old police chief, a longtime police chief, was pretty much booted out of the job. A new police chief came in in 2017. The police department had a full audit done by an independent third party, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and Glynn County Police had lost their accreditation, something that we also found out is a voluntary process across Georgia. Accreditation for police departments means that you have passed a certain standard of both training and internal procedures and modern practices and methods, and you're in tip-top shape. Glynn County Police had lost this accreditation. A new police chief came to the department. They had an outside audit that — and that report was 154 pages — that showed in really searing detail what was wrong, what needed to be improved upon and what was right as well.
Steve Fennessy: When you say this — this report showed things in searing detail, what were some of the most alarming revelations from that — that outside report?
Margaret Coker: The whole point of the audit is to give a roadmap to making the police department better. Some of the things that were pointed out were that there was no data retention or collection within Glynn County. You know, if you're going to have measurements for what good employee performance looks like, you need to have data so you can have a baseline to say you've overperformed, you've underperformed. Glynn County was told in this audit that they had not enough data in order to have this internal measurement in place. They were told that even though the police manual for Glynn County had a statement that read that racial profiling was — was illegal and not condoned by the police force, there was no way for the auditors to tell whether implicit bias training or diversity training was going on on a routine basis. And because there was no internal measurements in place, there was not enough information for the auditors to be able to say whether or not there was implicit bias at all in the police force.
Steve Fennessy: You said this audit was was triggered by a scandal within the department in 2017 that led to the ouster of the then police chief. Can you summarize basically what the gist of that scandal was?
Margaret Coker: The scandal happened in 2010. There was a young white mother in Glynn County who had a history of mental problems. Her name was Caroline Small. Caroline Small was killed by two police officers after having led them on a low-speed, erratic chase in Glynn County. And the circumstances were controversial at the time because the two police officers who ended up shooting Carolyn Small, instead of expressing dismay or concern about her — the driver — they compared to kill shots and who actually might have killed her, whose gun fired the kill shot. The family of Caroline Small thought this was outrageous, and they asked the DA — at the time, Jackie Johnson — to investigate whether this was a lawful killing and acceptable police procedures.
[News Tape] News4Jax: This 2010 video shows two Glynn County police officers shooting and killing Caroline Small after she led them on a chase. Cops had her car pinned and she was unarmed when they fired. Johnson presented the officer-involved shootings to a grand jury, but Johnson provided the officers’ defense attorneys with evidence before she presented it to a grand jury. Johnson went before the grand jury without presenting an indictment, and she allowed defense attorneys to participate in the grand jury hearing by asking questions. No charges were filed against the officers.
Margaret Coker: That was 2015, which then triggered outrage in 2016. All of which is to say that there have been moments in Glynn County that outraged residents have sought accountability and haven't gotten them for over a decade. Arbery's death and the lack of immediate police response and arrests in that case was sort of the last straw.
Steve Fennessy: And I understand that the Glynn County Police force numbers around 120. Did you also look at to what degree kind of the racial makeup of that police force represents or doesn't represent the community it polices?
Margaret Coker: That's one of the other findings in that 2017 audit that I've already mentioned. It was one of the pillars that the auditors use across the country to measure: how well and how appropriately communities are policed and police departments reflect the communities they serve. The Glynn County Police Department has never in the last 10 years matched the demographic ratios here. So fast forward with our investigation. One thing about about Glynn County, which is reflective about all of Georgia. Georgia is one of 27 states that upholds a legal concept known as qualified immunity.
[News Tape] WSB-TV: Qualified immunity protects governmental entities from lawsuits unless there is a clearly established constitutional violation.
Margaret Coker: It also means it's almost impossible to convict a police department or police officer in civil court. As people cannot find any satisfaction or accountability, either in criminal or civil court, there is another organization, another agency that we all know of as a grand jury. I've always thought that a grand jury is a group of people who take evidence brought to them by a prosecutor, and they decide whether or not there's enough evidence to go forward with charges and have a criminal trial. Well, under Georgia's grand jury handbook, grand juries also have this extraordinary power to be a watchdog and to recommend investigations on their own. So the grand juries in Glynn County, over — since 2016, have taken on this watchdog function. They have demanded, while they've been impaneled ,to start looking into other issues that the DA did not bring to them. So they have been writing reports at the end of their term. These reports are known as presentments. So these are extraordinary documents that show how deeply citizens here have felt about failures of policing in their own backyard.
Steve Fennessy: So this grand jury? Is it the same grand jury that's been, what, meeting periodically over the last several years?
Margaret Coker: How grand juries work, at least in Coastal Georgia, a district attorney's office impanels a grand jury. They're not just around to hear one case. And in Glynn County, there have been grand juries impaneled for eight, nine months every year, even for a full calendar year. In 2019, though, there were two separate grand juries impaneled. There was one that started at the beginning of the calendar year, and they were hearing individual cases that the DA's office was bringing to them. They also took up a recommendation to look into the Glynn County narcotics unit. So that grand jury at the start of 2019 started its own investigation about the narcotics department. It brought out its own presentment, where it was scathing detail about criminal misbehavior and corruption within this certain department, but also behavior that they thought was criminal with senior officers outside of that narcotics department, including the chief of police.
Steve Fennessy: That sounds like it's basically a de facto oversight that maybe in other communities would be provided by either lawmakers, a DA or someone else, right?
Margaret Coker: Right. And it's not specific only to Glynn County. This happens in other counties as well. But in Glynn County, this has become a really important tool to hold police and the DA accountable.
Steve Fennessy: Next, how a grand jury in Glynn County acted as the only watchdog of the county police department and the recommendations of the grand jury made just months before the Ahmaud Arbery killing.
Margaret Coker: It is hitting Glynn County in September 2019. It's hitting with a thud.
Steve Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today, I'm Steve Fennessy. Joining me is journalist Margaret Coker. She's reported on the killing last year of Ahmaud Arbery and its subsequent handling by police and investigators in Coastal Georgia. So the grand jury comes out with a what's called a presentment in September of 2019, which happens to be, I think, about five months or so before the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. And in this presentment, they're making specific findings and recommendations. Can you talk a little bit about what those were?
Margaret Coker: This grand jury has really had an interest in looking into a narcotics unit that was supervised by the Glynn County Police Department. And what they had been hearing was that members of the narcotics unit had been sleeping with confidential informants; that they were — they were trying to pressure witnesses to testify and commit perjury; that inside the police department, when the heat was coming on to members in the narcotics unit, that the chief of police himself was suborning people to commit perjury. Here we have a group of Glynn County citizens who have said there is something that stinks here and someone needs to do something about it. And so the pressure is building for the district attorney, Jackie Johnson, to do something about a police department that for eight years prior had been full of controversy.
[News Tape] News4Jax, Bill Atkins: "Glynn County stands out as perhaps the worst example in my career. There is a culture set from the top: protect your own to a fault."
Steve Fennessy: And what did she do?
Margaret Coker: So Jackie Johnson calls in a special prosecutor — this very well-known Georgia DA — and says, Can you be the special prosecutor, can you look at this evidence and you — you decide whether or not there's enough evidence to try and get criminal indictments against my local police chief, his former chief of staff and two other senior members of this former narcotics unit. So a special prosecutor comes in and she starts gathering evidence. And in February, they met. And remember, this timing is pretty crucial. Feb. 23, of course, is the day that Ahmaud Arbery was out for his jog and was accosted by three white men and died. And then one week later, on Feb. 27, the grand jury came back with its indictments against the Glynn County police chief, his former chief of staff and two other senior officers.
Steve Fennessy: Completely unrelated to the Ahmaud Arbery killing, but having to do with the narcotics task force findings?
Margaret Coker: That's right. It's a completely separate policing issue. But now, since we have started the trial of — of Arbery's murder, questions are going to be raised in court about who was responsible for the investigation into Arbery's death, who decided not to arrest the suspects right on the day or in the days after his killing. And the Glynn County Police Department was in a tailspin. When you don't have good leadership, I don't think you can have good investigations.
Steve Fennessy: Margaret, do we know why it took 73 days before there was an arrest in the Ahmaud Arbery killing, which was videotaped? It was clear what happened.
Margaret Coker: Records are still coming out. We're still all trying to report exactly what happened in those crucial days after the killing. But according to Glynn County's own records, in the 24 hours after Ahmaud Arbery is killing already, Glynn County police were being told to liaise not with Jacky Johnson's office, but with the DA's office in the neighboring jurisdiction. And that was George Barnhill.
[News Tape] WSB-TV: George Barnhill — he recused himself because his son worked with Johnson and the senior McMichael in the DA's office. But as he was doing that, he noted that he didn't see a reason for arrest of the McMichaels.
Margaret Coker: Both Jackie Johnson and George Barnhill have looked at that cellphone video. They both decided that there wasn't a criminal act there through that first 24 to 36 hours after Arbery was killed. The only people that the police had spoken to, as far as we know, were the three men who are now on trial for murder. Their version of events held up and their version of events seem to have held up for over 70 days.
[News Tape] WSB-TV: There was uproar because the three defendants were not arrested until months after the shooting, when a viral video was released.
Steve Fennessy: And then ultimately they were arrested. And then following that, Johnson herself was indicted.
Margaret Coker: That's right, Jackie Johnson is now facing two or three charges that she she violated her oath of office, and she showed favor to Greg McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, who is actually the man in the cellphone video who has the shotgun that goes off and kills Arbery.
[News Tape] WSB-TV: The former prosecutor is facing allegations of showing favor and affection to Gregory McMichael, who's charged in Arbery's murder, as well as knowingly and willfully directing officers to not arrest Travis McMichael, who is also charged with murder. Gregory McMichael previously worked as an investigator for her office.
Steve Fennessy: So when it comes to the trial itself of these three men and which has begun this week with jury selection, to what degree is Glynn County Police also being held to scrutiny?
Margaret Coker: Well, the trial is very intense and emotional for people in Brunswick, the Black community of Brunswick, and they are doing their best to show support for the Arbery family right now. This is a family that has waited a very long time to get this case before a jury. There are also people who are demonstrating and praying for justice who are walking around town with T-shirts on that say “Justice for Jackie's victims.” And on the back of their T-shirts, they have a list of nine names. These are people that they believe have died in suspicious circumstances, either in police custody or by police themselves that Jackie Johnson did not end up prosecuting. And there are people who who have been really advocating over the last 18 months to make change within the Glynn County police force. By the way, Glynn County has gotten a new police chief and for the first time in history, the police chief in Glynn County is a Black man. So there are members of the community who feel like they — this —his journey towards accountability has reached some pretty important milestones, while still the pathway is long and arduous to come.
[News Tape] 11Alive: In June of 2020, Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bipartisan hate crimes law law imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and disability. Nearly a year later, the governor repealed a portion of the citizen's arrest law. Attorney Gerald Griggs believes regardless of the verdicts here, the outcome of the trial will spark even more change in Georgia and beyond. "I think we're going to see a coming together that needs to happen. You know, there's been a lot of divisive rhetoric in Georgia and around the country, and I think this trial can start their healing process with accountability."
Steve Fennessy: And has this new police chief — whose name is Jacques Battiste — has he acknowledged the problems within his department? Has he announced any plans for trying to change tack?
Margaret Coker: So the police department says that they are studying the audit from 2017 to go through systematically and answer all of the shortcomings that were brought out in the audit. One of the first orders of business that — that they have focused on is revising the entire police manual in Glynn County. They are also trying to get back to a place where they can receive accreditation again. And there is a new proposal that members of the community want to see, which is building a citizens review board in Glynn County and Brunswick because they still don't trust the police.
Steve Fennessy: So we're looking at a protracted trial over the next weeks and months. Is there anything that you know we can come to expect or what? What are you looking for as this trial drama unfolds?
Margaret Coker: Well, I think the judge who's overseeing the murder trial, he's actually from the Eastern District and based in Savannah and his colleagues there in Savannah consider him to be the stereotypical "sober as a judge." He does not brook any theatrics. And he is going to penalize any showboating. He's going to keep things on a very straight and narrow. He's already ruled against many of the defense motions. And so I think it's going to be a pretty quick pace once we get the jury going. I think that's really going to heighten the emotions around Brunswick, and we'll see more people gathering outside the courthouse as we get closer to a verdict.
Steve Fennessy: In terms of some of the residents of Glynn County, how hopeful are they that the trial of the three men accused in the Arbery killing that — that may result in a fair police department?
Margaret Coker: That is a tough question. In this trial, the judge has put a limited gag order on what people that are affiliated with the trial can say in public. And, you know, in the last 72 hours before the trial started, and as the trial has begun, his parents are keeping a very hopeful tone.
[News Tape] 11Alive: Members of his family say they are looking for justice and healing. "We do want justice. We want justice, you know what I’m saying? Because it's been happening too long."
[News Tape] NBC News: Attorney for Arbery's father, Ben Crump, feels optimistic about the case. "The video is the most important witness in this entire case."
Margaret Coker: You know, people are just holding their breath. I mean, it's hard to see which way that this scales of justice are going to go. If you are someone who's grown up in Brunswick and are Black, you have not had a whole lot of reason to trust the system for a very long time. A community is focused on really seeking deep and meaningful reform.
Steve Fennessy: I've been speaking with Margaret Coker from the online news outlet The Current. Jury selection in the trial of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Roddie Bryan could take weeks as the prosecution and defense teams work through questioning 1,000 potential jurors in the case.
[News Tape] 11Alive: Finding neutral jurors — it's really going to be one of the biggest hurdles in this case because of how high profile this case is.
Steve Fennessy: Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer; our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. Keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
An earlier version of this story read:
This week's Georgia Today podcast delves into the troubled history of Brunswick police and how the trial may expose the department to even greater national scrutiny.
The sentence has been corrected to refer to Glynn County, not Brunswick. GPB News regrets the error.