Avondale Estates City Commission discusses the role of the city’s police department
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By Zoe Seiler, contributor
Avondale Estates, GA — Numerous high-profile incidents involving Black people dying at the hands of police officers has opened up a national conversation about the role of policing in communities.
The Avondale Estates City Commission joined that conversation during a June 17 work session where they discussed possible ways to evaluate the city’s police policies and procedures. There were 70 spectators who joined the meeting via Zoom.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked a wave of protests around the country, including Atlanta. Things were starting to cool down in Atlanta when an Atlanta Police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks on June 12, touching off another wave of protests.
The tiny town of Avondale Estates has been accused of racist policing in the past. In 2018, an Avondale Estates police officer was accused of racial profiling after stopping three people in the parking lot of the Pin-Ups Strip Club, according to CBS Atlanta. The men were detained for 39 minutes and handcuffed for 27 of those minutes on suspicion of driving a stolen car. It turned out the car wasn’t stolen.
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The city’s current police chief, Lynn Thomas, shot and killed an unarmed Black man in 2013 when he was an officer. He was promoted to chief after he was cleared of wrongdoing. The District Attorney’s Office concluded the shooting was justified. Thomas has been with the police department since 2002.
Mayor Jonathan Elmore said during the June 17 meeting that he wants to maintain trust and respect between the public and the police department.
Commissioner Lionel Laratte, the city’s first Black commissioner, added that he wanted to make sure the commission understands that evaluating the policies and procedures is one step in the process.
“I don’t believe that we’re going to be accomplishing anything if we just look at the words that are in the procedures and revise them to read in a way that makes us more comfortable that we’re accomplishing something,” Laratte said.
“I want us to have open minds going into this, that we may need to redefine exactly what it is the police department is responsible for. We may need to redefine exactly how it operates. Most of all, we may need to redefine the relationship of the police to our residents and visitors.”
City Manager Patrick Bryant gave an overview of some current police policies and procedures.
One point Bryant emphasized is that the current police policies prohibit chokeholds and neck suppression techniques.
“Not only is it prohibited in our policies and procedures, but we also do not teach those techniques to our officers,” Bryant said “Any officer who were to apply one of those techniques to another person could be subject to disciplinary action and/or legal action.”
Avondale police officers also complete around 100 to 120 hours of training each year. Bryant said the training hours are separated into three blocks:
– De-escalation, use of force, mental health and wellness and community policing
– Legal updates, defensive tactics and electronic control weapon usage, such as tasers
– Deadly use of force, firearms training and weapons qualifications
“Depending on the block, our officers are either going through training quarterly, bi-annually or annually,” Bryant said. “On an annual basis, all three blocks are covered for each officer within our department.”
The city also tracks all complaints filed with the police department.
“If a complaint is filed to our police department directly, it actually triggers an internal investigation of that complaint,” Bryant said. “Then upon the conclusion of that investigation, the complainant is notified of the results.”
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Bryant added that the city has data to be able to look at the number and types of complaints as well as the results which can provide information on ways to improve the department.
“I think it’s probably a vital part of this type of review process to ensure that we don’t present any biases in our policing,” he said. “I think the number one goal for us is to ensure that every person or every incident is treated equally and objectively rather than subjectively. We’re more than happy as a staff to take on those types of ventures.”
During public comments, Amy Leventhal asked the board if there’s data on whether more people of color are stopped in traffic violations rather than white people.
“In terms of traffic citations issued, we have pretty consistently had a persons-of-color-to-white ratio of 80:20,” Bryant said. “African Americans usually track at around 75 percent of all traffic citations and warnings issued throughout any given year. I don’t know the specific demographic ratio of the racial makeup of south DeKalb County but I have been told anecdotally that our ratio of tickets and our citation and warning issuance tracks fairly closely with the demographic of East Atlanta and South DeKalb. The theoretical reason for that is that the state highway runs directly through the city of Avondale Estates. We have up to 70,000 vehicles travel along that state highway every single day. Many of those persons are commuting throughout the county. So, we have a wide spectrum of persons who enter the city both as commuters, business persons, visitors to our businesses and the residents themselves.”
The majority of Avondale Estates 3,135 residents – 86 percent – are white.
As the discussion continued about how to review police department policies, commissioners discussed having a third party review the city’s policies and also engage a larger audience for input.
“I do believe that it is necessary to have an objective evaluation of the processes and procedures of the police department,” Laratte said. “However, I do know that we also need community input and by the community I don’t just mean city of Avondale estates because others do come into the city.”
He added that the city encourages people to support the local businesses and enjoy the city’s facilities. He wants to make sure that visitors are also accounted for in the process.
Elmore also suggested calling on DeKalb County government to help meet needs the city may not be able to address through polciing. He said right now if someone calls 911 a police officer or fire truck will respond.
“I think there are other gaps when you’re dealing with homeless people when you’re dealing with people that are having some mental difficulties,” Elmore said. “It’s not always appropriate for a fire truck or police officer to show up necessarily.”
Residents also encouraged the City Commission to consider a citizen review board and look into the 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide. This was a task force created by President Barack Obama. The 11-member task force created a guidebook of recommendations in 2015.
Bobby Wess, a member of the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice, spoke on behalf of the new group and advocated for these guidelines.
The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice is focused on promoting racial equality and justice, demanding safe and just policing and ending systemic racism in the city.
“Our group has grown to over 155 members in just 10 days,” Wess said. “We envision Avondale Estates becoming a more welcoming city to those who live, work or visit here regardless of race.”
The group has also created a petition to demand the city implement the 21st century policing guidelines. About 450 people have signed the petition.
Wess went on to say that the 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide includes four main points: review, engage, report and reform.
“No. 1: review the Avondale Estates police use force policies and implementation. No. 2: engage our community in this review by including a diverse range of input and experiences and stories, including those beyond our city limits,” Wess said. “No. 3: report the findings of the review to our community and seek feedback. The first step in this will be improving transparency by providing data on demographics and details of citations, use of force and community patrol for the last three years. No. 4: reform our community’s police use of force and other policing policies.”
Elmore said it’s going to take a while to address these concerns but assured residents that the city is taking necessary steps to do so.
The City Commission will meet again at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, June 22, via Zoom.
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