By Steve Middlebrooks
The Athens-Clarke County Police Department has been operating roughly 40 sworn officers short of full complement for more than a year now. Despite the pandemic, last year's summer of racial justice protests and increasing violent crime, and other challenges, our Athens-Clarke County Police Department responded to more than 97,000 dispatch calls by 911 during 2020. Against that massive count, there were just under 50 complaints filed. Not that the number of complaints is a complete summary of every mistake or possibly difficult arrest, but that is a complaint rate of only .0005 percent.
Following last year's heated summer of protests across the country and here in Athens, some of the community's loudest activist voices demanded a review of the policing practices and use of force by the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. In any enterprise, periodic review is of course warranted. During 2019, the last year for which complete data is available, there were six police-involved shootings and fatalities in Athens. As is required by Georgia law, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reviewed the circumstances, use of force continuum, and outcome of each shooting. In all cases, no wrongdoing was found, nor charges made against any Athens/Clarke County peace officer.
Many of those same voices have also been calling for nearly two years now to 're-imagine' our police department and public safety, to replace many of our trained public safety professionals with social workers, who would be dispatched to help in distress situations, versus making any charges or arrests. Though overall crime is down by 11% during 2021, compared to 2020, more than 100 UGA students have been assaulted as of July, the number of shootings, stabbings, rapes, and other violent crime categories is each on the rise. Our fast swelling homeless population is no longer simply occasionally guilty of aggressive panhandling, huge swaths of downtown are now overnight homeless campsites and reek of urine and worse.
Homelessness, in and of itself, is not a crime. But in consultation with several nonprofits and faith-based organizations who seek to serve and support that population, including the Sparrow's Nest, Salvation Army, Potter's House, and numerous local churches...a consensus portrait emerges of three primary categories of the homeless population - the mentally ill or those facing significant challenges with addiction or substance abuse; the 'free spirit' life off the grid seeker who does not trust government nor any type of structured life; and finally families or individuals falling on temporary hard times, recent eviction, or loss of employment. Athens Classic and most everyone I know will strongly support a hand up, but a series of expanding or ever-growing 'handouts' will only attract more folks seeking the same.
Since 2017 the Athens-Clarke County Police Department has operated a Crisis Intervention Unit, pairing a senior detective/officer with a licensed clinical social worker. Two teams alternate the day and night shifts, and the upcoming fiscal year budget will fund four such pairings of the Jerry NeSmith Athens-Clarke County Police Crisis Intervention Unit. The involved officers and detectives do not typically respond to 911 calls but are called to hundreds of scenes and homes afterward, to provide mental health, addiction recovery, and other types of support services. Hundreds of calls each year have resulted in lives saved, ranging from talking a woman from recently jumping off a roof, to reuniting broken families torn apart by alcoholism or drug addiction
Their work is well documented and ongoing, as is their training of dozens of other police and sheriff departments and jurisdictions across the state. And also interestingly, the lieutenant who commands this unit, the senior detective who began this work, and the social worker on board since these services began in 2017 each say that they have not been contacted by, interviewed, asked to speak, or provide any information to any of the many entities and organizations calling for re-imagining the police department with social workers and community volunteers.
Yes, every voice should be heard. There were dozens present at the most recent meeting of the Athens-Clarke County Commission to oppose the establishment of a semi-permanent homeless encampment near downtown Athens. Following lengthy debate and several failed amendments, the encampment along with $250,000 in initial site improvements and another $50,000 in strategic planning for homeless services was passed by the tie-breaking vote of our Mayor. Annual operating expenses for the Temporary Encampment are estimated at $2-million at the former North Athens School on Barber Street.
The facility is expected to be operated there for 22-months, until June 30, 2023. Though it is good to have a plan to deal with the coming wave of expected evictions and foreclosures after the latest CDC prohibition of both, by emergency order related to the pandemic either ends or is overturned by the courts...what is the planned Maximum Capacity of this Temporary Encampment? That number was not available when the Athens/Clarke County Commission committed an immediate $300,000 and a potential $2-million more. By comparison the most recent annual budget expenditure on Economic Development is only $400,000. What happens if/when that facility is full? Facts and their absence can be stubborn things.
Steve Middlebrooks is a longtime Athens businessman who chairs Athens Classic Inc.