The Austell Community Taskforce (ACT) met with residents and community leaders on Saturday, Aug. 25 to explore next steps in making the community whole after a number of crises that raised tensions between residents and the Cobb County Police Department.
In 2014 ACT held forums on policing, called Bridging the Gap. From those meetings, community residents were assigned to various efforts to help resolve concerns about the treatment of people of color in the criminal justice system.
Cynthia McGarity of ACT said that the organizers hoped to avoid conflict. “Rather than deteriorating into an opportunity of for complaints, this forum will be Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant and Timely (SMART) to shape Austell into a healthy community and perhaps a role (model) for other communities across this nation.”
Pebblebrook High School student Jordan DeMarcus Clay set the tone for the theme, Where Do We Go from Here? Clay compared justice to a scenario where one sibling gets away with stealing from a cookie jar when others are not allowed the same privilege.
“We nag and nag and annoy our parents to death as a means of justice.” He said these early social interactions around fairness set the foundation for protests. “Not only is the community fighting for justice in law enforcement, but for proper representation among those who wear the uniform. In real the world situation we may accept apologies, but that does not take away our fierceness to what has been done, which is why disciplinary actions needs to take place, that is the way we desire justice.”
Commissioner Lisa Cupid said the recent millage rate increase provides traction to improve the community and address outstanding concerns in the area. She said the money would be spent on things including Sunday bus service, library improvements, police recruitment, funding for body cameras, a new mini-precinct and two additional staff members for the Mable House.
Police Chief Mike Register and Chairman Mike Boyce also pledged their commitment to the community.
Panelists included officials and community residents. Questions to the panel came from hosts Ron Davis and Deborah Johnson, and from the audience.
Language Arts Teacher Michelle Johnson, a 25 years classroom veteran, said children are apprehensive about resource officers. “Overall they are cordial, but they see the world through social media and pop culture. Many times those images are negatives and not good. It [law enforcement] is not what they want to embrace and they have no respect for authority and law enforcement. We have neglected to teach them respect for authority. They are being taught by social media.”
Johnson said she asks her students how they would feel if someone ran a red light and hit them, to explain the importance of laws.
Student panelists commented on the role social media plays in their lives. “We are not coming to social media to learn. We are coming together embracing each other, because 98 percent of our day is spent there. We are talking about what we see on the news all the time. What people don’t understand is that we have an opinion, but they say we are still learning and we are always at the bottom of their lists. We have a voice. We want to help the world,” said 16-year-old Alyssa Hardy of Pebblebrook High, who aspires to be a New York Times journalist.
Amanda Altena, a 17-year old student at Pebblebrook said the best way to reach youth is through Instagram and Snapchat. “Raise your hand if you have an Instagram or Snapchat account. We are not on Facebook. You have to come to us, if you want to understand us.” Some of the attendees were on Instagram, but only one on Snapchat.
Major Scott Hamilton of Precinct 2, a 25-year plus veteran of law enforcement, discussed the need for better public relations. He said the department has to “Get from behind a blue wall of silence and stop saying we cannot release a statement. People are tired of hearing no comment.”
He said Cobb County has made great strides, and he was particularly pleased with the outcome after a recent shooting in the Riverside area. “Because media and [police] administrators showed up to answer citizens’ questions, there was no fallout, like marches and other protests since the episode.”
Sally Riddle, of the SPLOST Citizen Oversight Committee, noted the disproportionate number of African Americans prosecuted in the criminal justice system.
“Promoting Scott Hamilton and keeping him in the precinct was a good call on Register’s part.” She said the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP) findings have been a catalyst for significant gains in police training on implicit bias, crisis intervention, and de-escalating situations.” She also acknowledged a culture shift away from the “warrior” approach by police.
“But until mothers no longer have to have the conversations with their children about how to stay safe, we haven’t quite gotten there.”
Several panelists said parents cannot be solely held responsible for unlawful behavior of their kids. However, Hamilton presented a case where parents were held accountable. After several young people were arrested for robbing Pebblebrook students at gunpoint, they were required to wear ankle bracelets. Cops checked on the boys each night with a door knock. “The parents were upset, but we continued to make the rounds.”
Davis said he was disappointed with the turnout. “I am not into numbers, but more people in the community should have been here … activism should not begin with a tragedy like someone being shot. If we don’t take the problem to serious enough, we cannot expect the results of East Cobb or other places we see an example. We have to take ourselves serious first.”
The need to share information
“Share the information with your friends and neighbors. One of the reasons it took so long to get the millage rate increased was the opposition organized, and there was no one there initially to speak up for the raise,” Riddle said.
The students had similar responses.
“Let’s have conversations with law enforcement. We have to come together and have peaceful negotiations. Hey, let’s be like Canada that has civil discourse,” Alyssa Hardy said.