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Athens News Matters: Athens Police Chief Discusses the State of Policing in Athens


After a rash of gun violence involving young people, as well as increased traffic fatalities, Police Chief Cleveland Spruill joins WUGA's  Chris Shupe to discuss the state of policing in Athens.

This transcipt has been edited for clarity 


Chief Spruill, thanks so much for being with us today. We’ve got a lot of questions for you, so let's get right to it.

You know, there have been many shootings in Athens this year, a lot of them involving young people, as well as a shooting involving multiple victims in downtown Athens in September. Are we really experiencing more shooting deaths and gun violence than in years past, and if so what would be the reason for this increase and what is the police department doing to address this problem?


Sure, what I will tell you is that while overall crime in Athens-Clarke County is down about 7% compared to last year, we've seen a significant increase in aggravated assaults this year [including] shootings. They're up about 16% compared to last year. People should be concerned about those numbers, but I will tell you that as part of what we're seeing nationally and regionally, folks all over the country are reporting the same type increases in shootings and violent crime across America. 

So you know it's not unique to Athens-Clarke County, but certainly it's not acceptable, and we're committed to taking the steps to address those kinds of incidents and take violent criminal offenders off of our streets.


Well, similarly there have been over 20 traffic fatalities in Athens this year. This too seems unusually high. Are there any specific patterns to these fatalities or reasons for this increase?


During COVID-19, I think a lot of police law enforcement agencies relaxed their traffic enforcement efforts. Remember, every time that there is a face-to-face encounter, such as a traffic stop, that's another opportunity for this invisible but deadly virus to be transmitted.

And so a lot of police departments across the nation, including Athens, reduced our traffic enforcement efforts, and I think that led to more aggressive driving behaviors on the part of some of our motorists.


Well, in November you arrested 13 suspects in a massive gang bust in Athens. Does Athens have a gang problem?


Before I move forward, I do want to say Athens-Clarke County is a safe community. It has a high quality of life and we try to keep our crime rates down. So I don't want to create a sense of alarm. But I'll say that just like most urban areas. Athens-Clarke County has its share of street gangs, and oftentimes these street gangs can be very violent. And we saw that occurring, and we began an operation - Operation Tourniquet - that was a seven-month operation that targeted a gang known as 1831 Piru, which was operating in Athens and in this region.

It was a collaborative effort where we had members of our Gamg Task force, our Drug Task Force, Safe Streets initiative, working collaboratively with agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and from the FBI. That was a seven-month-long investigation that culminated in November. Actually, the total number of arrests that came out of that operation was 37. Thirteen of them took place on the final day of roundup here in Athens-Clarke County.

In that operation we seized 60 firearms, including a fully automatic machine gun, so that should give you an idea of how dangerous and violent and deadly these gangs can be. And we also seized over $1,000,000 in drugs and assets.


How is the policy to include mental health professionals in your response calls working out? How often have you been using these professionals?


Well, I can tell you we use them on a daily basis, been using them for some time now. I think you're familiar with the Jerry NeSmith Behavioral Health Co responders, a program that we have as a collaborative effort between us and Advantage Behavioral Health, and what we do is we put a highly trained, skilled police officer with a mental health expert from Advantage.

They ride around in cars on a daily basis, and they're listening to calls for service. And when they hear a call that they feel may be impacted [by] or the result of mental health, substance abuse, they will interject themselves and work from a standpoint of trying to find out what the underlying causes of this person coming in contact with the criminal justice system [are] and try to find resources and programs and treatment to help those people rather than funneling those people towards incarceration.

It's been an outstanding program. It's been recognized regionally and nationally; a number of law enforcement agencies from all over the country are coming in or we sent our teams out to kind of show them how we operate and what we do.

It’s been a very successful program. Right now we have a total of three co-responder teams that are working; we've been authorized to build those numbers up to 7. My hope is by the end of the fiscal year we'll be able to get to seven. Some of it deals with us finding, you know, we have the officers, but we have to wait on mental health clinicians.

So we're working to find team members and to build that that program out so that we have a total of seven response teams. 

While we're on this subject, I would like to talk about another program that's geared toward the same type of service called the alternative response teams or ART,  and it's a program that is really a program from Advantage Behavioral Health, but it's a collaborative effort between them and the Police Department, because quite often, on a daily basis, we get calls for service where we send the police.

But they really would be better impacted if they had someone who was not the police, but that could address the issue of concern that they're calling for. They’re not calling to report a crime, they’re calling to report an issue whether it be a need for services, substance abuse or medical issues, whatever and so these ART teams are being formed now. They should be in place here, hopefully within the next month or so, and what they'll do is they'll be on our radio system and we'll actually dispatch them to incidents. Certainly we’llmake make sure that we're not putting them in a dangerous situation, but incidents where there's no indication of a gun or violence or anything like that and where it's not a crime, then we want to send them in to see whether they can address the issue without having to have the police there. So I think that's going to be a marvelous program. I'm looking forward to working with Advantage to roll that out sometime in the very near future.


Cleveland Spruill is the Chief of Police for Athens-Clarke County. Thanks for taking some time with us today.


Thank you for having me.

Chris Shupe began work at WUGA as a part time weekend announcer in 2010. At the time Shupe was focused on maintaining a thriving career in Real Estate, as well as balancing his time as a local entertainer. Shupe may be best known as The Athens King, a tribute to Elvis Presley, which often included an 8 piece show band! In 2012, Shupe joined WUGA full time as the station’s Morning Edition Host and Assistant Operations Director, and after 2 years of serving in that role Shupe was hired as Program Director for the station. As PD, Shupe spearheaded a return to more involvement in national conferences and continuing education opportunities through industry professional organizations like the Public Radio Program Director's Association, Public Media Development and Marketing Association, Morning Edition Grad School, the NAB, and the Public Media Journalists Association. This involvement led Shupe to undertake a comprehensive market study in 2015, the first such examination of local audience trends in more than 15 years.
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