Avondale Estates City Commission interviews candidates to review the police department
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By Zoe Seiler, contributor
Avondale Estates, GA – The Avondale Estates City Commission held a special called meeting on Thursday, Sept. 3, to interview consultants who want to review police department policies and procedures.
At the Aug. 19 work session, the City Commission began discussing two proposals from candidates on how to review the police department. City Manager Patrick Bryant said the city didn’t have any criteria when he sent out the request for proposals.
He then recommended that the City Commission interview each candidate to help determine the city’s course of action and what they want a consultant to review.
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Both candidates have a law enforcement background. The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice, which has been pushing for a review of the city’s police department, has asked the city to have a person of color involved in the review process. Dawn Diedrich, who is white, worked for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as the director of the Office of Privacy and Compliance from 2000 to 2018 where she advised others on legal issues and trained employees on issues such as discrimination and use of force.
Allan Branson, who is Black, is currently a consultant and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Arcadia University. He was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department for 26 years and worked in internal affairs for 15 years.
Branson, however, has accepted an offer to work with another city but has offered to assist Avondale on a pro bono basis to help the board determine what they’re looking for from a review.
The consultants discussed short and long term goals with the City Commission and both emphasized engaging the community.
Branson said that many complaints are generated because the public doesn’t know what police procedures are and it’s not explained to them. People become suspicious if they are not engaged, he said.
Diedrich also discussed the intersection of neighbors and building public trust with the community.
“The question is what is the community because that’s what you’re facing. Your citizens are probably very happy but you want to interact with the greater community, you want to be a good neighbor, you want to have these values,” she said.
“The difficulty is how do you measure that you consider someone your neighbor, that they’re welcome in your community,” she added.
The commissioners are trying to figure out how to reach the public, especially those outside of the community. Avondale sees many people traveling along North Avondale Road, also called U.S. 278, on any given day.
The Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice is conducting a survey about traffic citations and analyzing police records of traffic citations in order to make recommendations to the City Commission.
The group has found that people of color make up about 15% of the Avondale population yet have been issued 80% of all traffic citations. Only 3% of the citations have been given to Avondale residents and the city is mostly white, Avondale Alliance member Lisa Cottrell previously told Decaturish.
She added that 70% of the citations were given along North Avondale Road.
Mayor Pro Tem Brian Fisher said the city has a reputation based on past actions that if someone is Black and speeding through Avondale, they will be stopped and given a ticket.
“You want to change the reputation of the city, start by engaging the community and just continue along that line. It will eventually change. Also, let police officers know that even though you support them they are accountable and there will be consequences for actions that are deemed improper,” Branson said.
Cottrell also previously said that there is a perception of over-policing at Avondale Estates Elementary School, which is located off of North Avondale Road, as parents get pulled over often.
Most students at the school are not residents of the city and 97% are minority students with most being Black, she added.
Fisher mentioned that the long term success of the community will be based on the elementary school. He and Diedrich agreed that engaging with students, parents and teachers would be a good place to start to determine where the city is at with its reputation, how this group feels about the city and how the city can begin to break some of those barriers, Fisher said.
The City Commission also discussed the potential of creating a citizen review board.
Branson added that, as a long term goal, the city should look at complaint procedures and internal affairs.
”The things that you need to look at long term are your complaints and your disciplinary procedures because the first thing they want to know is there a process for a citizen making a complaint,” he said.
Bryant said the city has multiple avenues for citizens to make a complaint but there is not currently an avenue for redress for the public. Branson said a path for redress should be a long term goal.
“If you consider setting up a situation where you have civilians…if you have a couple of responsible individuals, it’s less likely that you’re going to have pushback,” Branson said.
He added that there may always be push back but at least the city would have made an honest, sincere transparent effort to allow the community to weigh in.
Bryant added that the city averages two to three citizen-generated complaints in a year and another handful of complaints are generated internally.
“So in any typical year we’re conducting between six and eight investigations into our own police’s behavior that could potentially result in disciplinary action,” Bryant said.
The board would have to determine how many people to put on this board but Branson suggested having one or two average citizens who have a residence, a job and are not connected to law enforcement.
“What it is, is about having the common man’s voice on the board,” he said. “You want someone who is outside of the whole bubble of law enforcement because your complaints are coming from the community and they’re not trained in law enforcement.”
Diedrich said she is troubled by the idea of citizen oversight of complaints and tends to not be in favor of that.
“That’s hard for me because that’s not the model we’ve had in the state of Georgia. We typically don’t have citizen oversight boards specific to police misconduct,” she said. “Perhaps you could consider some sort of a board that is looking at these issues in terms of inviting people into the community.”
She thinks there could be involvement with the board in terms of setting standards and expectations of the police department and what the city expects of interactions between the community and officers. She added that this could be teased out by a board focusing on bringing people into the city.
“What I was speaking about that I would not be inclined to be in favor of would be that there would be some sort of review outside of what your employees normally would get,” Deidrich said.
Commissioner Lionel Laratte, the city’s first and only Black commissioner, said that with an internal review of a citizen complaint the record of the incident is only the police perspective. If a complaint goes higher than the police chief, it goes to the city manager, who the department reports to.
“The point is that if it goes further than the city manager and the resident, or the citizen, wants to further that complaint it can only be done at considerable expense– hiring a lawyer and getting it into the legal system. To me, that is a barrier to getting fair review,” Laratte said.
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“We have review boards for many other things. I do believe that something as important as police work in which interactions with the public can be deadly, that is, to me, not even a question,” he added.
The issues the country is facing are not coming to an end soon and the country has denied that there are problems, Branson said.
“It’s not going away but honest engagement with the public and transparency really matters. I can tell you as an African American that I have had incidents where I’ve been scared of the police and I was a cop but I wasn’t in uniform. But that’s a reality,” Branson said.
The next step for the City Commission will be to determine the scope of work they would like to pursue as a first phase. After that, the city can begin working with a consultant to review the department.
Branson suggested looking at vehicle and pedestrian investigations and any accompanying citations, looking at body and dash camera data and procedures, looking at the department’s disciplinary codes and directives. He also suggested having a retention schedule of complaints.
“I think it’s important that we maintain balance and trust. We have to have trust in our police department and they have to trust us. Speaking for myself, I have their back. This is really about, in my opinion, constant improvement and making sure that we’re operating at the highest standard,” Mayor Jonathan Elmore said.
The next City Commission meeting is on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 5:30 p.m. through Zoom.
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