Low Hanging Fruit: Curbing Police Violence in Georgia Would Be A Good Start

by Hugh Esco

This weekend the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a front page report acknowledging the fact of police violence and impunity in Georgia. While the AJC didn't make the source data public, and didn't include strong and specific recommendations on how to curb killer cops and their enablers, its publication is a milestone that would not have been reached without the persistent and popular pressure from below.  That's a good thing, but only a start.

Low Hanging Fruit: Curbing Police Violence in Georgia Would Be A Good Start 

by Hugh Esco

Not long ago reasearchers with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement came together and catalogued for a six month period the use of deadly force by those exercising police powers in this country. The report became popularly known as the 'Every Thirty-Six Hours' report. But that title did not last long. In only a few days, they received many notes of gratitude for their timely analysis accompanied by reports, 'but you missed one'. When those responses slowed to a trickle, the report was updated and re-issued as the 'Every Twenty-Eight Hours' report.

MXGM and their allies beat the drum, but it would take the murder of Michael Brown, who lived to be only three years older than Mr. Martin, before the nation stood up and took notice, if not of the MXGM report, than at least of its subject matter.

That got journalists finally connecting some dots and asking relevant questions. In early 2015, an Atlanta reporter was left to tell their editor that 'no one in Georgia could say how many people were killed by police each year.' To their credit, the editors at Cox Communications decided it was a question worth answering. Like MXGM before them, they put a concerted effort into that question for six months, conducting over 100 interviews and collecting 500+ relevant documents. They produced Over The Line, an impressive report on police violence and impunity in Georgia. It catalogues six years of data amounting to 184 use-of-deadly-force by law enforcement deaths since New Years 2010, an average of nearly 31 each year, ranging from 26 in 2014 to 42 in 2012. They gave the report a banner headline above the fold and a two page spread in Sundays' Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

The data show that Georgia accounts for 2.5 deaths a month over the past five years. The 89 black victims of Georgia's killer cops is just shy of half the total number although black folks are only 30% of the state population. That averages just shy of 1.25 black Georgia deaths a month, or 5% of the 26 monthly black deaths by killer cops reported by the MXGM's nation-wide 'Every 28 Hours Report' (which focused on black victims). The AJC study quotes Phillip Stinson, an Ohio academic, attorney and former police officer who pointed out that “police own the narrative without any accountability”.

That AJC study has the usual limitations one might expect from the corporate media. It uses the past perfect tense on blacks feeling the “brunt of police violence and where law enforcement was used as a tool of intimidation and control”; as if this were a problem which has long since been resolved. It fails to name names of judges and district attorneys who did not hold killer cops accountable for their actions. It does not include the supporting data, which would be a useful contribution to the public record, and fails to ask many more fundamental questions, some of which are included below.

The report does however, identify a number of weaknesses in current practices which beg for obvious reforms. Here are a few obvious policy changes suggested by a close reading of Sunday's report:

  • it is time to repeal the opportunity for a police officer to offer closing testimony without cross-examination to a grand jury considering whether to bring a criminal indictment for abuse of their 'police power' to use deadly force;

  • it is time for a mechanism and funding to comply with the unenforced 1994 Congressional mandate that the DoJ collect and make an annual report on the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers, a program I would suggest be staffed in the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, by state employees with no ties to law enforcement, to collect and publish such data, monitor Georgia police agencies for compliance, and submit such data to the USDoJ;

  • it is time that access to state and federal funding for law enforcement agencies be conditioned on compliance with such reporting mechanisms, and the training and discipline standards laid out by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

The study noted that DoJ reporting by local police agencies is optional and that only 16 of the 600 Georgia agencies with police powers made such reports. The AJC study identified twice as many death-by-cop incidents in Georgia as initial queries to the Department of Justice revealed.

The report in the Sunday paper was titled: 'Unarmed, shot in back: Police never charged'. Specifically 70 of the 184 were shot in the back and 31 were unarmed. The article proceeds to tell the story of an East Dublin Georgia officer named Jeffrey Deal. On May 14th, 2010, he murdered Melvin Williams, a 33 year old black parolee in a traffic stop that escalated in thirty seconds into a shooting which took Mr. Williams life. His radio report of the killing, recorded in the record has him stating, "I just shot one."

On the date Mr. Williams drew his final breath, Deal was operating without police powers in the state of Georgia due to his failure to participate in an annual 'use of deadly force' training. Further, Deal was one of twenty killer Georgia cops 'involved in a fatal shooting who had conduct or training deficiencies documented in their records'. These facts beg for a policy:

  • that supervisors be required to collect the badge and guns of employees who lack police powers and all the training such responsibility requires.

An unnamed local judge found that Deal had the authority to make a "citizen's arrest", even though no credible independent evidence supported Deal's explanation of the facts. On that basis, The Laurens County DA declined to prosecute and Deal continued to work for the East Dublin force until August of 2015 when he joined the Georgia State Patrol. However before he was handed the keys to patrol the state, federal and interstate highways of the four counties covered by the Dublin Post, he resigned on September 21st while under investigation for questions about his 'honesty and substantiated allegations that he harrassed other cadets'. But the thin blue line closed ranks to protect one of their own and he began the next day with the Telfair County Sherrif's Department, his 'police powers intact'.

As egregious as this story which took from Lena Williams the third of her seven children, and as obvious and necessary as the reforms suggested above may be, they are not sufficient to efforts to ensure that those sworn to serve and protect are accountable to the law they are hired to enforce and to the communities whose taxes pay their salaries.

Addressing these questions sufficiently will require that re-examination of those public policies which lead our nation to fund and wage military occupations around the world; and its distribution of surplus military equipment and mustered out military personnel to occupy communities here at home.

It will require that we recognize that drug addiction is a public health crisis perhaps, but not a matter for cops and courts. It will require the repeal of mandatory minimums which bind the gavel of judges; the defunding of a bloated carceral state which subjects one of every thirteen r adults in Georgia to judicial supervision; the elimination of excessive prison and jail capacity which has failed in too many ways as a public-safety strategy; and the conversion of those public expenditures to programs which show actual promise in making our streets and homes safe.

The American Gulag, known around the world for locking up roughly a quarter of the world's inmates (and this from a country with less than 5% of the global population) has long been unable to justify itself as a public safety strategy.

The tremendous public expenditures involved in the police and surveillance state only make sense as a social control strategy for a totalitarian regime. Any nation aspiring to respect in the global community as a democracy would first have to examine why it finds it necessary to exert such social control over its own population. The reforms outlined above are low hanging fruit, the next obvious steps in this conversation.

While these reforms are ones obviously endorsed by some parts of the corporate media I long since stopped holding my breath that the corporate parties would do the right thing. Clearly bringing about these changes will require a commitment to political action quite independent of the political establishment which brought us this crisis.

As Greens we seek opportunities to work with others to address the conditions we face in our communities. By declaring our independence from the pragmatism of being a safe investment for corporate contributors, we seek the liberty to address those more fundamental questions, to envision the world not as it is, not as small reforms might render it, but as a just and sustainable future for the grandchildren demands.

Hugh Esco is cochair of the Georgia Green Party for whom he has run as a nominee for public office, seeking election as Lieutenant Governor of Georgia and to the Georgia General Assembly. He operates a small home-based application hosting business, working by day as a DevOps Engineer for a Fortune-500 corporation.