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George on Georgia – So, apparently, I’m a racist

George on Georgia Metro ATL

George on Georgia – So, apparently, I’m a racist

George Chidi
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So, apparently, I’m a racist.

That’s one way to read the message of “Welcome to Pine Lake,” airing on CBS’ online platform. It premiered Sunday night. It’s how a lot of people who live here are reading it. 

And … I’m chewing on that. Honestly. No serious idea should be beyond reasonable consideration, and the idea that this Black man might be complicit in acts of racial oppression and white supremacy as a participant in governance is a serious idea.

Pine Lake. Population 760 or so on a good day. I moved here in 2007. I’ve lived here longer than in any other place. I’ll be buried here, I think. And, frankly, this hurts. I take it personally. But let’s talk about it.

The documentary had initially been constructed around the all-female leadership of Pine Lake, which is a remarkable thing. But it appears that two things happened over the course of 18 months of filming. The filmmakers saw and heard what people from around here have seen and heard for generations: that Pine Lake gives out a lot of tickets, mostly to Black drivers. And the Black Lives Matter movement began to eclipse the Women’s March as a driver of public discussion. 

Thus, a pivot toward the questions of racial justice raised by the city’s court, police and ticketing.

The film doesn’t get into any numbers. There’s no real context offered, except for Pine Lake’s tiny courtroom crowded with Black bodies pleading for mercy, and parenthetical reference to how most people who live near Pine Lake are Black, while most people who live in Pine Lake are white, present company excluded. 

Here’s what wasn’t said. 

DeKalb County police fields about 860 officers — theoretically. They’re never at full strength. About half are in the uniform division, so 430. Those officers are on traffic enforcement duty about half the time, so 210 (I think the practical figure is lower). The county takes in about $9 million a year in traffic citations, or about $42,000 per patrol officer doing enforcement.

Pine Lake has about five full-time equivalents on its police force. It takes in an average of $210,000 a year, so about … $42,000 a year per patrol officer doing enforcement.

Pine Lake hasn’t written a speeding ticket in years. It doesn’t have a speed gun. Most of the citations are for expired plates, lack of insurance, or suspended licenses. The cops write fewer than two tickets in an eight-hour shift, on average.

This issue is near to my heart. I served for about four years in two broken terms on the Pine Lake city council, first in 2010, then again in 2014. And I have spent more time looking at the racial dynamics of policing in Pine Lake, and probably DeKalb, than almost anyone. I’ve offered testimony in the state legislature about police conduct. I wrote body camera rules for the city that have been used as model legislation. I have worked on criminal justice reform issues on the ground level for most of the last decade.

While serving I made a point of looking for ways to monitor traffic enforcement and ensure that abuses were not occurring. Pine Lake’s reporting system in place is there because I wanted to have it. It was one of the animating reasons for my service.

I carefully compared the rate of ticketing of Pine Lake’s police to that of the county at large and to other peer cities and found it comparable or lower. Traffic fines in Pine Lake were lower. The rates of nonpayment were lower. The rates of dismissal were higher.

In every case, I asked myself what the likely result of shifting over to the county police would be, and in every case, it became clear that replacing a Pine Lake officer with a DeKalb County officer would result in less responsiveness, less justice and higher cost for Black people.

The issue of social justice isn’t about whether Pine Lake’s cops give out too many tickets. It’s whether any cops should be giving out tickets at all.

That’s an important discussion at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. To what degree do police perpetuate crime by exacerbating poverty, instead of alleviating it? 

Everyone has to do better. It does not mean that the widening discussion about police reform — shifting police budgets into social services — is unmerited: far from it.

I am perfectly aware of how screwed up criminal justice is for Black people here and in America.

The key problem in my view is how the justice system uses probation in Georgia. 

But laying the weight of this moral question on Pine Lake is a cop out that excuses the wider community of its own moral failings around racial justice and policing, because the racial composition of DeKalb County’s recorder’s court cases are more or less identical to Pine Lake’s court and no one seems ready to hold the county’s 70-percent majority Black voters accountable for that, either.

I note in passing that if you draw a circle four miles wide around the center of Pine Lake, you have roughly 4 percent of DeKalb County’s territory, 25 percent of its murders and 15 percent of its aggravated assaults. Someone emptied four full magazines of a handgun on Sunday night within earshot of my house. We regularly do the “was that fireworks” discussion as we debate calling the cops or not.

Pine Lake homeowners pay a millage rate of 21.53 — the highest municipal tax rate in Georgia — to maintain a police department that answers to the city. 

Still, I suppose a long-winded, statistically-laden defense for how Pine Lake operates relative to other police departments and court systems is both inadequate and beside the point. There is a big, structural problem in America — Black people are discriminated against in jobs and housing and, yes, the policing system and even the most optimized and ideal process in Pine Lake changes none of that.

It’s clear the filmmaker, Elisa Gambino, wanted to reflect her earlier premise about women’s political empowerment and matters of racial justice as ideas. I think her work here is nuanced and fair, even though it’s not always flattering. It’s also not some heavy-handed personal condemnation of the city. There are no villains. The documentary spends at least as much time talking about how city leaders are wrestling with how to change Pine Lake’s posture toward a majority-Black neighboring community as it does in court or at the city’s raucous public celebrations.

Of course, that’s not how it’s marketed. 

 

More people may read this column than watch the 80-minute film. But a million people will see the tagline, and the tagline reads “Documentary reveals how a small Georgia city’s history of over-policing belies its liberal image.” 

Over the course of the next year or two, the public in Pine Lake will be having a fairly serious conversation about racial justice and policing, one that has been going on regularly since the late ‘90s. I am of the opinion that we should remove the financial consideration entirely and send all the revenue to the county. But the actual operations aren’t abusive, relative to those of the county at large or our common expectations of policing.

Are those expectations changing? Probably. And perhaps that’s for the best. If we want to talk about whether people should be getting tickets at all … OK. I’m down for that. Should license plates be free for poor people? Maybe. Should there be some way to subsidize car insurance for poor people? Maybe.

But that’s all a very different conversation than “Pine Lake cops are abusing Black people.”

Facile criticisms won’t solve an extraordinarily complex problem. But … perhaps those criticisms will create the political conditions for other people to solve those problems. 

– George Chidi is a political columnist and public policy advocate.

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