community conversations june 11

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz and Police Chief Cleveland Spruill discussed the future of policing in Athens in a livestreamed community conversations meeting Thursday. (Screenshot/ACC YouTube)

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz discussed use of force, community engagement and transparency within the ACC Police Department with Police Chief Cleveland Spruill during a livestreamed community conversation Thursday.

Girtz said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the future of policing in the county. Protests against police violence, particularly against the black community, have swept the nation in the past week.

In ACC, a peaceful protest on May 31 ended with ACCPD officers tear-gassing protesters at the Arch. The next day, a memo showed that Spruill ordered the tear-gassing to disperse the protesters.

Spruill said during the meeting that a report of police actions during the May 31 protest would be released soon.

Use of force

Spruill said the policy of ACCPD is to use force only when necessary, and avoid it whenever possible. He also said that the use of force policy requires the sanctity of life to be held above all else.

In 2019, there were six officer-involved shootings in ACC. The District Attorney found no criminal wrongdoing in any of the cases.

Spruill said he was appalled by the actions of the Minneapolis police officers in the death of George Floyd, which sparked nationwide protests. He said he agreed with the actions of the Minnesota District Attorney Keith Ellison to charge all four officers.

“I was appalled when I saw a police officer with his knee on the neck of an African American man that was handcuffed for over eight minutes,” Spruill said. “I don’t see how anybody could categorize that as anything other than murder.”

On March 11, weeks before Floyd’s death, Spruill said he reissued the ACCPD use of force directive that strictly prohibits the use of any neck restraint or chokehold unless the officer has the potential to lose his own life. 

He said that it was a goal of the police department to not use any level of force, including tear gas, whenever possible. He said he was willing to apologize to any peaceful protester that was affected by the use of gas, and was willing to learn different tactics and policy to avoid it happening in the future.

Spruill said there is an investigation on the actions of the police during the first protest and the public should not be surprised if the police “acknowledge that we didn’t get it right.”

Spruill said transparency is one of his key focuses. He said he wants the public to see what the police officers in their communities are doing. He talked about the importance of body cameras and said that he would release some of the body camera footage from the May 31 protest sometime next week.

Open to ideas

Spruill also discussed the use of mental health co-responder teams and specialized training for officers to better address mental health crises in the community and de-escalate heightened situations.

In co-responder teams, an officer is teamed up with an Advantage Behavioral Health Systems mental health clinician to bring resources to people experiencing mental health crises. Spruill said the program has been successful so far.

Girtz said there may be room in the county’s fiscal year 2021 budget for funds to increase the co-responder program.

“What we don’t want to do is criminalize human crisis but in fact find the root of that crisis,” Girtz said.

Spruill said that the ACC Community Police Advisory Board, which is in the process of being created, would provide greater transparency and give ACCPD the opportunity to discuss their actions and improve on their decisions in the future.

The committee will oversee the police department and review its policies and practices, Spruill said. It will also review any actions the department takes and make recommendations to the Mayor and Commission on how to improve the department. Girtz said it will be made up of 10 Athens residents.

Spruill said the ACCPD tries to hire the “best and brightest” and hire for diversity to bridge the gap between the police and community in Athens. He said hiring from the community would bring a deeper level of understanding and compassion to policing.

“Who is going to take care of the community better than somebody who actually comes from that community?” Spruill said.

Spruill said the department was beginning a cadet program that would bring on cadets from disenfranchised communities in Athens, particularly in communities of color, and train them in different aspects of policing. Spruill said he hoped it would be a mentoring program and would give the cadets an opportunity to tell the police how to better address their communities.

Spruill also discussed the presence of Gov. Brian Kemp at last weekend’s protest. Spruill said he did not know Kemp would be in Athens. He said the ACCPD relied on assistance from the Georgia Emergency Management Center, which is controlled by Kemp.

Spruill said Kemp called in Spruill and University of Georgia Police Chief Dan Silk to see if they needed more assistance during the protest, to which Spruill said he did not.

Spruill also discussed how his own background with police influenced his policing philosophy. Spruill said he grew up in Queens, New York, in an impoverished public housing community until he was 14 years old. His family then moved to Richmond, Virginia, when it was considered “the murder capital of the United States.”

Spruill said his experiences in New York and Virginia made him know what it was like to grow up in a community full of crime and disorder. He also said he didn’t have a positive view of police because of a lack of trust in the community. He said as he became a police officer, he realized that more work needed to be done to bridge the gap between communities and police officers.

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