Athens Police Department

The Athens Police Department. Photo by Sarah Donaldson.

Athens City Council has no plans to discontinue funding for the Athens Police Department after more than a month of widespread protests across the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which calls for police departments to be defunded, among other demands.

Councilmember Beth Clodfelter said she recently met with Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle and was confident in what the department was doing to hold officers accountable in combating racism and police brutality.

“It doesn’t seem to me that it’s a police department that’s in crisis that we need to do something about immediately,” Clodfelter said in an interview.

She pointed to measures already being taken by APD, which includes implicit bias training and crisis intervention training; a ban on chokeholds and neck restraints; and a full-time social worker, as well as a former psychologist, who serves as an officer on staff.

In an interview, Pyle added that he believes the department’s culture of community outreach and service, as well as its hiring practices, sets it apart from other larger police departments.

“We have excellent oversight of our officers’ conduct,” Pyle said. “Smaller agencies are much more regulated than larger, bureaucratic agencies.”

Pyle, however, generally criticized implicit bias training, which is provided and mandated by Ohio for police departments.

“I’m not sure that it fosters the right attitudes, at least with some officers,” he said, adding that he believed that isn’t an issue with APD. “It’s necessary, but I’m afraid that some people will use it as a shield, rather than the way that it’s intended.”

In addition to implicit bias training, APD officers are required to go through emotional intelligence training as well as de-escalation training. And by the end of July, all APD officers will go through a history of racism course, which was recently developed by the Joint Police Advisory Council (JPAC).

The JPAC is permanently made up of the chief of the Athens Police Department, the chief of the Ohio University Police Department, Athens Mayor Steve Patterson and President of Ohio University Duane Nellis, as well as members of the campus and local communities.

Local activists, however, would still rather see funds taken away from APD and reallocated toward other public safety measures.

According to the revenue and expenses report from Athens City Auditor Kathy Hecht, the city spent roughly $4.4 million on police, with grants, in 2019. That does not include expenditures on parking enforcement, which was around an additional $1 million.

Andrea Reaney, an organizer with both the Ohio and Southeast Ohio chapters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), said she believes — based on the recent national dialogue — it’s irresponsible to not consider what could be done locally if money was taken away from the police department.

“It’s time to use that money to actually invest in services that serve our community and bring life into the community,” Reaney said in an interview.

At the end of June, Athens City Council declared racism a public health crisis. But Reaney said that she thought it was important for the city government to investigate what she called the root causes of that racism, including looking at the police budget and police operations in the city.

“The important thing in Athens to remember is that we’re not talking about individuals or individual police departments,” she said. “We’re talking about an entire system. Even if folks think the Athens Police Department isn’t as violent, or isn’t as reactive, or as militarized, as other police departments, it’s still a part of this larger system.”

Former mayoral candidate and activist Damon Krane compared the money spent on policing in the city to the money spent on housing and code enforcement in the city. The city spent about $600,000 on code enforcement in 2019, according to the revenue and expenses report.

“At the very least, one of those things has some counterproductive side effects that make the community less safe,” Krane said in an interview. “There are no counterproductive drawbacks to public safety and local racial justice when it comes to housing safety enforcement.”

Krane also criticized APD for its role in the arrests of more than 70 peaceful protesters in Baker Center in 2017, as well as the controversial 2019 arrest of Ty Bealer, a black student at The University of Cincinnati who was filmed being held down by three white APD officers on Court Street.

As an alternative to funding policing, Krane said that some possibilities being discussed on a national level include increasing low income individuals’ access to physical and mental healthcare, pushing for bystander intervention training and putting together teams of city employees who are unarmed, conflict interventionists.

While Krane said he’s not opposed to what is already being done by APD to prevent problems that might arise — like body cameras — he doesn’t think it’s enough to solve underlying issues.

“We are in a difficult situation because I don’t think we have the potential to do away with our current model of policing overnight, and until we can build substantial alternatives to policing, I think that it is going to be this dual process,” Krane said.

But he added that for the time being, it was important that everyone did as much as possible to hold police officers accountable. Clodfelter agreed.

“I think communities should stay vigilant and watch and use their cell phones when something is happening,” Clodfelter said. “We should keep holding the Athens Police Department accountable for the behavior of the officers and the way that they treat the public.”

sdawes@vintoncourier.com; @sydneydawes_95

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