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(Editorial) Mental health, community safety and a new way forward for policing in DeKalb

Crime and public safety Editor's Pick Metro ATL

(Editorial) Mental health, community safety and a new way forward for policing in DeKalb

DeKalb County Commissioner Ted Terry. Image provided to Decaturish

By Ted Terry, DeKalb County Commissioner, Super District 6

A couple of weeks ago, DeKalb County was in the national news because of a New Yorker article, Why Did the Police Shoot Matthew Zadok Williams?

The article was about an incident many here read about in the local paper or saw on the 6’clock news a few months ago. Indeed, this tragedy, along with the countless others that have happened all over the country, are no doubt very familiar to the millions of Americans demanding meaningful reforms to our criminal justice and police systems. As familiar as they seem to us, there are very few cases that are clear-cut and have much more complexity than a short news clip can hope to explain. But when a 5,000 word article makes national news and has more details than our local news does, more questions are created than answers given.

Days later, I wasn’t surprised when my office was flooded with emails and social media posts, demanding answers on how DeKalb leaders would prevent this kind of police violence from happening again, and keep our communities safer without continuing to feed the mass incarceration system. One of those emails was from my good friend John Jackson, the chairman of the DeKalb County Democratic Committee.

John is a leader who has worked tirelessly to elect Democrats up and down the ballot, engaging voters new and old and turning them out in record numbers and delivering Georgia for President Joe Biden and for Senators Warnock and Ossoff. DeKalb County was on the tongues of political pundits and people nationwide, and it was because of DeKalb Democrats. We owe a lot of respect and thanks to this man, and when he emails elected leaders, we listen. But not just because of his political title – but because of what he represents; a Democratic Party that campaigned on criminal justice reform, and a promise, made to hundreds of thousands of Dekalb voters, to address the inequities and the racial injustices that exists in so many systems in our society today. He deserves an answer on what we, the people elected to lead DeKalb, are doing about it and how we do it. So do you, and you deserve an answer in a transparent way.

What you will read won’t satisfy all that you seek answers for. Indeed, the GBI investigation of the officer involved shooting is still ongoing. But I hope you will see solutions to greatly reduce the possibility of incidents like this from happening again. Below is a portion of the email response I provided:

​———- Forwarded message ———

From: Ted Terry <[email protected]>

Date: Sun, Jul 11, 2021 at 9:51 AM

Subject: Re: Zadok Williams – What are we going to do about it?

Mr. Chairman,

Thank you for your email. I have no new information to share, and can’t comment regarding the ongoing investigation.

What I can report is that under the leadership of CEO Thurmond and the Board of Commissioners, the DeKalb Police Dept. is greatly expanding community policing and mental health services countywide, and in many ways changing the way we approach community safety in DeKalb.

Currently up for consideration in our mid-year budget (to be voted on July 27th) and the American Rescue Plan budget proposed by the CEO we doing the following:

Hiring up to 4 crisis nurses embedded as a co-responder unit with DeKalb PD, this will provide greater coverage and capacity and expertise when 911 calls come in that indicate a mental health issue is involved. This is a partnership that has existed with the DeKalb Community Service Board for over a decade thanks to the leadership of Commissioner Larry Johnson. Now this program is being expanded and enhanced to meet the current need in the community. A related funding item under the American Rescue Plan budget proposal voted on earlier this month will allocate another $1 million to continue the CSB’s mobile and tele-mental health services, and the opioid residential treatment program which has had a tremendous success rate in the 12 months it has been in operation. This program is continuing for another 12 months.

New Community Service Aids unveiled at the end of June last week are an important first step in reallocating armed officers to focus on responding to violent crime, while more routine calls will in part be handled by these new positions. Other jurisdictions are even considering taking traffic enforcement into this non-armed paradigm, reducing the possibility of an officer involved shooting at a routine traffic stop. We should continue to expand this program if the pilot effort proves effective.

Expanding funding for the DeKalb Police Athletic League, with new staff, a new building, and additional transportation resources. I’m familiar with how impactful this program can be. As Mayor of Clarkston, we contracted with DeKalb PAL every summer to put on a midnight basketball league that engaged 150+ Clarkston area youth between ages of 14-22. Years ago I was inspired by what is possible in a well funded PAL program, after watching an HBO Real Sports episode on the Los Angeles program highlighting the “Watts Bears”. Besides it being smart to have police officers serve as coaches and after school mentors for the purposes of community cohesion and trust building – ANY expansion in afterschool programs for underserved communities have been proven to reduce the income disparities in graduation rates and without a doubt, if fully funded, can cut off the school to prison pipeline. We should continue to expand PAL services as well as work with the Board of Education to ensure universal afterschool access and early learning opportunities. Dollar for dollar these programs are the best investments society can make in our young people.

– Introduction of a violence interruption program, in partnership with John Jay College; another program proven to reduce violence, with a particular emphasis on conflict resolution, mental health services, counseling and mentoring to reduce the lethality of conflicts. There are potential opportunities for expansion in the future, which could involve how we embed these programs within our school system, to address youth violence.

Serve and retention bonuses – this one is more nuanced than simply paying cops more $$; and is acknowledging that when Police Departments increase training, those officers become more valuable and keeping the officers that we spend lots of time and resources to train will stay with the Dept. I believe this trend will be a positive one if we begin to move in the direction of other advanced economies and turn public safety into a highly rigorous, highly educated profession. However in the meantime there is substantial evidence that in the short to medium term, having additional capacity in patrols and response, does indeed reduce violent crime. Ezra Klein recently discussed this paradigm on his podcast with guest James Forman Jr.

As you and I know, elections matter. Democrats were elected in Georgia with the understanding that we would  push forward criminal justice and police reforms, invest in our communities and change the systems of inequity that still exist in all 3,000 Counties across the USA. These investments here in DeKalb County will make a difference; but we can always do more. We can always be learning and adapting and reforming that way we look at problems and keep pushing forward the progress we desperately need.

During my election in 2020 I ran on these issues, and my platform on Criminal Justice Reform was centered around the concept of “Civilian Led Policing” which in essence is a systems level change that will create a permanent connective tissue between the Police and the Community they Serve. In a similar way to the DeKalb Board of Health, a civilian board oversees the Public Health system in our County. Why can’t we do this for our Public Safety system? Good news is that other large police depts are already experimenting with this model. NYC this year will be rolling out their civilian community councils that will have input into the leadership and rank and file hiring in each Police precinct. We should monitor this program, and consider a pilot project to move in the same direction of what is a truer form of “community policing”.

Lastly, I’d suggest that you and others (me included!) that want to see these reforms continue and progress; work with Commissioner Mereda Davis-Johnson as Chair of the Employee Relations & Public Safety (ERPS) Committee on the Board of Commissioners. In recent ERPS meetings we’ve discussed the possibility of a Civilian Advisory Board similar to Gwinnett County’s initiative launched this year. Let’s talk more about this!

These reforms and policy changes can’t happen overnight and indeed will be a long hard slog as some will not want to see those changes… But as President Obama said “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” I feel confident that we here in DeKalb County Government, with the support of community and political leaders like you, will make that change we seek.

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