By Farol NeSmith
Two days before the citizens of Athens-Clarke District 6 re-elected Jerry NeSmith for his third term on the ACC Commission, he suddenly died. That death left his family in shock and a district without leadership.
Today, as we struggle with the challenge of reforming, re-imagining and re-awakening our country’s criminal justice system, let’s remember what Commissioner NeSmith did for the ACC community before such ideas became a nationwide chant.
The slogan “Defund the Police,” does not express what Jerry would’ve embraced. Indeed, it is an emotional cry for change that smacks of getting rid of or reducing our public safety. We need a slogan that calls for restructuring and adding needed services to enhance the work of public safety. That’s what Jerry was all about.
In 2016, long before that slogan existed, Jerry, and others in the community, began a program to help the local police better respond to people with mental health and addiction needs. At that time few such public safety programs existed within the arm of the police. The founders of the newly named NeSmith Co-Responder Program—part of the Advantage Behavioral Health Systems—had to look as far as Houston, Texas to find a local government model. Only three such models existed nationwide.
Today in Athens, trained, professional co-responders team up with the police when calls come in from people suffering from mental health or drug related issues. ACC currently has three 24-hour teams. Indeed we need more and we must expand this program. As retired judge David Sweat said at Jerry’s memorial service, “As a judge, I was frustrated that the only response we had to mental health crises was the ER or the police. Now, in Athens, thanks in large part to the work of Jerry NeSmith, we have a place where people can get help.”
As Jerry’s wife, I watched him work tirelessly in support of our community. Being a man who never tooted his own horn, he rarely talked about what he was doing, but his commitment to ACC and to helping our first responders was always apparent.
Most police officers are underpaid, particularly those in Athens. Jerry pushed for higher salaries for police, because we were hiring, training and losing them to higher paying jobs. I cannot tell you the number of times I was with Jerry when he would take time to stop and talk with a police officer to encourage, support and show respect. These people risk their lives every day to keep us safe.
Indeed, reform is necessary and Jerry would be the first one on that bandwagon. Let’s not use language that demoralizes those people who work hard on our behalf. Let’s continue Jerry’s work to invest in public safety programs to support police and make ACC a safer community.