In recent months, few Commission actions have been as divisive and controversial as the establishment of the Public Safety Oversight Board. Did it have to be this controversial?
No other profession requires employees to wear cameras on their heads and record every interaction they have with customers, clients, or the public. Or to have those interactions reviewed by a supervisor on a regular basis, and made public when action taken is analyzed and scrutinized.
While resisted when first introduced, body-warn cameras have been overwhelmingly embraced because in the vast majority of video reviews, it supports and protects the officer and the action taken. Police are not worried about oversight, they experience it every working day.
As a result of brutality by some police officers outside of Athens-Clarke County, a small but vocal number of individuals demanded that an oversight board be establishment. The Mayor responded to the request and appointed a task force to consider developing a board. This is the beginning of where things went terribly wrong. The task force included several members (and a leader) that had long-term, established hostility toward law enforcement and were determined that the Board should have control of the police department (even to hire and fire the Chief).
Members serving on the Task Force with supportive law enforcement position soon resigned because they quickly realized that this was not going to be a fair process. One meeting got so hostile it had to be stopped. In another meeting the Chief of Police, who supported the establishment of the Board
and had worked with one in a prevision position, was asked not to attend because of a member's hostility towards him and law enforcement in general.
Three members whom should have brought thoughtful, balanced discussion to the table, were intimidated and rarely pushed back against the hostility because they were concerned about other members' criticism and public reaction. The resulting document and recommendations sent to the Commissioners were clearly not acceptable as a fair and unbiased law enforcement review process.
Fortunately, the Government Operations Committee, under the leadership of its Chair, and the tenacity of the Chief of Police to work with the Commissioners and staff, reworked the final ordinance resulting in more clarity and fairness.
The ordinance passed on a 10 – 0 vote now has the potential of meeting the Mayor's original goal of developing a process that will bring increased public transparency to and awareness of public safety and improve community relations with the varies law enforcement departments.
The big question now is can it be effective? The answer will be determined by who is selected to serve on the Board. If the Mayor and Commissioners decide to appoint community activists with hostile or anti-law enforcement positions, it will be counter productive.
If a majority of Commissioners decide to appoint thoughtful, unbiased, and fair community members, it has the potential of guiding our already outstanding public safety service departments to an even higher level. The Mayor and Commissioners will have to decide what political end they want to achieve.