At a Mayor and Commission meeting on the evening of March 5, 2019, a $250,000 settlement agreement with former ACCPD Officer Taylor Saulters was approved by commission members in light of a lawsuit filed by Saulters against the ACC Unified Government.
"We, the Mayor and Commission of Athens-Clarke County, have made this decision in order to avoid prolonging the pain and expense of continued litigation, and further place our energy moving forward into ensuring that safe, dignified lives can be lived throughout our community," Mayor Kelly Girtz said in a statement.
Girtz also said in his statement that regardless the settlement is no "substitute" for the ongoing efforts to improve engagement with the community on issues regarding diversity and inclusion, specifically relating to the relationship between the ACC community and local law enforcement.
According to a statement from ACC Attorney Bill Berryman, the decision to accept the settlement comes partly from the results of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which determined that Saulters' actions "constituted a reasonable use of force," according to Berryman's statement. This reiterates the findings from the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia as outlined below.
The ACC Unified Government "continues to deny all liability for this claim" regarding Saulters' lawsuit, which targetted ACC Manager Blaine Williams, former Police Chief Scott Freeman, former Police Public Information Officer Epifanio Rodriguez and former ACCPD Lt. Richard Odum, according to Berryman's statement.
State investigation exonerates officer Taylor Saulters, documents show internal concerns in ACCPD
Four months after Athens-Clarke County police officer Taylor Saulters was fired for excessive use of force, a state investigation cleared his name.
“Officer Saulters was acting within the lawful scope of his authority when he was attempting to make a lawful arrest of a fleeing felon,” reads the report from the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
PAC reviewed the Georgia Bureau of Investigations’ findings about the June 1 incident when Saulters hit 24-year-old Timmy Patmon, a fleeing suspect with an outstanding warrant, with his patrol vehicle.
Former ACC Police Chief Scott Freeman fired Saulters for this incident a day after it occurred, calling his use of force unjustified, according to an internal affairs investigation, which was conducted immediately after the incident. The PAC study, on the other hand, said Saulters “acted within the scope of his duties.”
“Yes, I’m taking a beating in one side and internally, but I’m firm on my decision that it was the right one for so many different reasons,” wrote Freeman in a June 4 text message to Lemeul “Life” Laroche, founder and executive director of Chess & Community, according to documents obtained by The Red & Black.
Within two days after Freeman fired him, Oglethorpe County Sheriff David Gabriel hired Saulters, despite community pushback.
A June 15 rally was organized in Oglethorpe County where members from both Clarke and Oglethorpe counties attended to express their support or opposition to the hire. Now, Gabriel is using the PAC decision to back his June hire.
“When I decided to hire Taylor Saulters I had a lot of questions from the community about my decision,” Gabriel posted to Facebook on Sept. 28. “I asked you to trust me because time would prove me right and that there were other things at work here than people realized.”
The talk of the town
Athens community members rallied behind Freeman’s decision and expressed their support of his choice to fire Saulters at a city and commission meeting held a few days after Saulters left.
Mokah Johnson, president of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, known for her local activism, was particularly vocal in this conversation.
According to documents obtained by The Red & Black through an open records request, Johnson and Freeman were discussing the chief’s response to the incident before the internal investigation results were released to the public.
Freeman notified Johnson of Saulters’ termination before it was announced to the public, according to ACCPD documents.
“First, thank you,” Freeman wrote in a text to Johnson on June 2. “I am forever in your debt. Second, I just terminated the officer. This is being made public on our FB page in the next 10 minutes, but I wanted you to know. The video will also be posted.”
Johnson said she and Freeman originally cultivated a relationship when she first became involved in activism in late 2015, the same year Freeman was hired.
Despite the new report exonerating Saulters, Johnson said she sticks by her initial assessment of the incident.
“The internal investigation found him to be at fault,” Johnson said. “Even us watching it saw that it wasn’t right, and then for the GBI investigation to come out … There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors going on. Basically, every time an officer does something, they are going to find a way to justify it.”
Saulters told ACC investigators he did not intend to hit Patmon but had difficulty controlling the car after hitting a curb and sustaining a flat tire. However, investigators claimed the use of the patrol car was unjustified under the circumstances.
The PAC report said Saulters was in “lawful pursuit of a fleeing felon” and backed his assertion that the flat tire affected his steering ability.
The report said Patmon’s “attempt to crisscross back and forth” around the car contributed to him being hit.
Besides Laroche and Johnson, several other people, including artist Broderick Flanigan and District 117 State Rep. Deborah Gonzalez, texted Freeman to express their support.
“I’m in your corner,” Laroche wrote to Freeman on June 4. “Let me know how I can help. I know you’re getting lots of backlash. I spoke at an all white church on Sunday and expressed how much I’m in support of you.”
In a recent interview with The Red & Black, Laroche said Freeman had been successful in promoting positive relationships during his time as chief by attending community events.
“I think that was really important in helping the community feel that, in spite of other things going on in the country, he was at least trying to move the needle in the right direction,” Laroche said.
The department’s concerns
Some officers who resigned from the force after June perceived Freeman’s decision to fire Saulters as being influenced by community pressures.
One former officer who resigned in July said he saw text messages between Freeman and Johnson and was uncomfortable with the tone.
One officer of three years said in his August exit interview the Saulters’ firing was “a knee-jerk reaction because of a certain ‘community leader,’” but it is unclear if that is a reference to Johnson.
In response to that statement, Johnson said the police department should be held “accountable for the fact that one of your officers used his car to hit somebody during a chase.”
“If they are trying to accuse me or my organization of [inappropriate influence], then I would like them to say it publicly because it’s going to speak volumes to this community,” she said.
Two officers who complained about how the Saulters’ incident was handled suggested Freeman fired him before the internal investigation was complete.
The same officer of three years wrote he would have felt better about his job “knowing that if something goes wrong we would have someone that would have our backs until a full investigation was complete,” according to documentation of his exit interview.
Five officers mentioned the chief’s decision to fire Saulters as a contributing factor to their resignation in their exit interviews.
“He just instantly fired [Saulters],” one departing officer who worked for the department for five years wrote. “Makes them feel like he doesn’t have the officers’ back … He looked at community but not the officers.”
Because of this tension in the police force, Johnson is asking the ACC government for “clarity on the future of police reform and community policing in Athens.”
Johnson and AADM is working with Athens for Everyone and the Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition to create a citizens advisory committee to assist in the selection of the next police chief.
AADM is hosting a town hall meeting to discuss this idea with interested community members from 5-7 p.m. on Oct. 4 at Hendershot’s Coffee Bar on Prince Avenue.
Sofi Gratas contributed to this article.