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After 19 months of work, the future of police oversight is uncertain

Mokah Johnson

A proposal to create a Civilian Public Safety Oversight Committee should get a final vote from Athens-Clarke County Commissioners at their meeting on Tuesday, but the outcome of that vote is far from certain.

The concept of some type of civilian police oversight has been in the works for over a year and half, since February 2020, when Mayor Kelly Girtz formed a citizens’ task force to research and explore the issue. The integration of civilian oversight drew more attention a few months later, after many in the community were outraged by the tear-gassing of protestors in downtown Athens by ACC police officers.

Early this year, the task force finished its work and made a set of recommendations to the Mayor and Commission. The commission’s Government Operations Committee took the recommendations and began writing a draft ordinance.

The committee process was at times an arduous one. Questions were raised over the composition of the board, how it would interact with law enforcement, and how much power it would have. Over the course of several committee meetings, the concept was expanded to include not only the ACCPD, but also the Sheriff’s Office, Clarke County Jail, and the county’s probation office.

According to the draft ordinance, the oversight board’s main duty will be to look at complaints against law enforcement officers for allegations of discrimination, abuse of authority, and other forms of misconduct. However, the oversight authority would not have the power to discipline officers. Rather, they would make sure that such complaints were thoroughly investigated, and make recommendations about policy to local law enforcement agencies. Some law enforcement officials, like ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill, expressed concern about even that level of involvement, however.

Others, like Clarke County Sheriff John Q. Williams, are taking a wait and see approach. While Williams said that the conversations that an oversight board could start around policing are important, the composition of the board is also a major factor for him. "It's important that you have people that are impartial and are willing to look at it through the nature of the job and the training and the expectations, constitutionally ,that law enforcement falls under,” Williams said.

In the draft ordinance that commissioners will consider Tuesday, the oversight authority would be made up of nine voting members appointed by the Mayor and Commission. In addition, the police chief, Sheriff, jail warden, Chief Probation Officer, and county attorney or their designees would be non-voting members, along with one ACC Commissioner.

To some local lawmakers, the public support for civilian police oversight seems to have waned over the months however. District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards told WUGA News that he hasn’t heard from any citizens recently who support the measure.

One group that continues to support the oversight authority, however, is the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement. AADM President Mokah Jasmine Johnson says she hopes the measure will pass and that it will lead to, “more equity and justice within our communities.”

ACC Commissioners are expected to vote on the issue at their Tuesday night voting session, which will be streamed on the county’s YouTube page.

Alexia Ridley joined WUGA as Television and Radio News Anchor and Reporter in 2013. When WUGA TV concluded operations, she became the primary Reporter for WUGA Radio. Alexia came to Athens from Macon where she served as the News Director and show host for WGXA TV. She's a career journalist and Savannah native hailing from the University of Michigan. However, Alexia considers herself an honorary UGA DAWG!
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