Racial Justice & Police Reform

In response to last year’s nationwide George Floyd protests against racist police brutality, harassment and murder, Council unanimously pledged to conduct a racial equity review of city operations and to pay new attention to racial equity when passing legislation. But then 6 months later Council unanimously passed new 3-year police union contracts, virtually unchanged from previous years, without ever conducting the promised review or paying any new attention to racial equity.

Then, in February of this year, Mayor Patterson announced he was making good on the resolution by investigating city code and private property deeds for potentially racist language, as though that’s what had killed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and as though that constituted a racial equity review of city operations.

The Post reported my reaction for a March 11 article.

“My take is that a review of the city code is fine, but last year’s protests were about policing,” Krane said. “Those protests are what led Council to pass its June 22 resolution, and that resolution didn’t just commit to a review of the city code. In the very same sentence, it committed to a review and revision of all city operations … and city operations obviously include policing”…

“If all that’s being reviewed is the code and some property deeds, then unfortunately this is just a classic case of bait and switch,” Krane said. “It’s also a case of seven affluent white politicians exploiting Black suffering for their own advantage, while doing nothing to actually alleviate Black suffering … (the) resolution grabbed headlines and made Council look like a bunch of good white liberals, but then Council reneged on all the resolution’s commitments and only worked to preserve the status quo in policing.”

Now, more than 15 months after Council’s June 2020 racial equity resolution, the racial equity review still has not been conducted, and no racial equity lens has been applied to the creation of new city policy. Despite complete Democratic control of City Council, we’ve failed to enact police reforms already passed by Democrats in dozens of other cities across the country.

And voters have taken notice. After Council member Chris Fahl dismissed criticism of the city’s inaction on racial justice and called the subject “boring” during the spring primary race, voters delivered the 12-year incumbent a crushing 30-point defeat. Rather than re-electing Fahl, voters chose newcomer Alan Swank, who called Council’s hypocrisy and inaction on racial equity an embarrassment and pledged to support a racial equity review.

Fahl’s dramatic defeat sent a clear message that other city officeholders could suffer the same fate — particularly Council member Sarah Grace. Not only is Grace the only other incumbent Council member in a competitive race this year, she personally authored Council’s unanimously passed racial equity resolution only to then join the rest of Council in breaking all of its promises.

Thus two months after Fahls’ defeat, Council tried to stave off further criticism and boost Grace’s chances of re-election by suddenly spending nearly $100,000 on a mandatory racial equity training course for all city employees provided by the National League of Cities’ Race, Equity and Leadership Council.

But there’s a catch.

Without ever conducting the promised racial equity review of city operations, there is no way to focus the course on solving our city’s specific problems, and no way to measure the course’s success or failure at improving racial equity in our city. This is particularly ironic, given that one of the course’s selling points, touted by its creators, is the ability to customize course content to fit an individual city’s needs. Yet without the promised racial equity review, there is no way for the $100,000 course to be any more valuable than a PBS documentary on racism we could have had city employees watch for free.

So Council essentially threw away $100,000 of public money on Sarah Grace’s re-election campaign and a deceptive ploy to make themselves look better. And to avoid criticism of their ploy and public pressure to do something more meaningful, Council blocked public comment on the measure by suspending their normal rules and immediately authorizing the spending as soon as it was proposed.

What makes this even more troubling is Mayor Patterson’s blatant conflict of interest in brokering the course’s purchase while simultaneously mayor of the city buying the course and a member of the organization selling the course.

According to the Athens News, “Patterson told City Council on Monday that he had been working with the NLC for seven or eight months to bring the REAL program to Athens.”

According to a March 11 press release posted the City of Athens – News and Information Facebook page on March 25 and reported by The Post in an April 11 article, “Mayor Patterson was elected to a one-year term and will provide strategic direction and guidance for NLC’s federal advocacy agenda and policy priorities. The appointment was announced by NLC President Kathy Maness, councilmember, Lexington, South Carolina.”

Thus by Patterson’s own account his appointment would have occurred 1-2 months after he began trying to get Athens to purchase the organization’s $100,000 racial equity training course. Given the mayor’s lackluster on racial equity, which mostly involves protecting police from accusations of racist violence and joining Athens City Council in opposing police reform, it’s reasonable to wonder if Patterson’s appointment to an organization ostensibly devoted to improving racial equity was simply a reward for his salesmanship of the organization’s course.

Also suspicious is that never once during the alleged 8-month period Patterson says he was advocating for the city to purchase his organization’s course was the public or press notified of the mayor’s maneuvering. And after the mayor and other city officials kept everything quiet for all that time, as soon as the purchase was proposed to Council, Council immediately voted unanimously to suspend its rules so that the approval of the mayor’s purchase could be rushed through without any opportunity for public comment.

Finally, Patterson and his ally on Council, Sarah Grace, have both tried to argue that the NLC REAL course fulfills the city’s commitment to carry out a racial equity review.

“There would be a city-employee wide survey the data for that will be informative to REAL where REAL can somewhat customize a training platform,” Patterson told the Athens News in August.

“The very first thing the city is receiving through this program is a racial equity review of our city employees… some form of questionnaire or survey to assess where individuals within the city’s employ are, what our level of understanding is of systemic racism and racial justice issues. Because… we can’t go forward effectively with training unless we first know where we are. And so that is the first step in this program that the city has contracted to begin through the National League of Cities,” Grace stated during a September 21 council candidate forum.

In contrast, when Athens County Copwatch (which I co-founded) investigated local policing in the summer of 2020, we did not give Athens police officers an opinion survey. Instead, we made public records requests for 5 years of data on the department’s use of force incidents, arrests, traffic stops, internal officer discipline, use of force policies, record keeping policies, budget and expense reports — and more. We then shared all of the records we received with the public by publishing them on our website and Facebook page. We explained how we analyzed those records to arrive at our conclusions, and we published our findings — findings, which, among other things, included APD using force against Black people at 2.6 times the rate it used force against white people, while also disproportionately subjecting Black people to arrests and traffic stops.

City officials denied all of Copwatch’s findings, but they have yet to conduct a transparent investigation of their own — and “some form of questionnaire or survey” of employee opinions is no substitute for the racial equity review of city operations, including policing, that Council promised more than 15 months ago. Thus just as when the mayor claimed in March that the city was conducting its promised racial equity review by examining private property deeds for racist language, this course is just one more example of bait and switch where what city officials are really doing is continuing to renege on the commitments they made last summer.

Granted, it may seem odd that local Democratic politicians have been so resistant to police accountability and meaningful racial justice work, when Democrats in other cities across the country already have passed such reforms. What makes this even stranger is that Athens Democrats have free reign to do whatever they want, since they face no opposition from Republicans. There are no Republican officeholders in our city, no Republican candidates for any city office, and no electoral prospects for Republicans on the horizon given our city’s miniscule number of Republican voters.

Yet despite all this, even the newly appointed Democratic members of Council —Ben Ziff and Micah McCarey– have failed to call on Council to make good on the promises of its 2020 racial equity resolution. (Ziff came closest to doing so at the September 21 candidate forum.) And that’s despite appointee McCarey being Council’s first African-American member possibly ever.

Among all of this year’s new Democratic Council candidates, so far only Alan Swank has joined me and countless other community activists in calling for Council to make good on its promises concerning racial equity. That may have a lot to do with Swank being elected by primary voters, rather then being appointed by party leaders, like Ziff and McCarey, or not facing any challenger, like Solveig Spjeldnes.

Nevertheless, I’m confident we can force our unusually conservative local Democratic establishment to change its tune.

Even though I’m disappointed by the inaction of new Democrats Ziff, McCarey and Spjeldnes on this issue, none of them is responsible for most of the above. Ziff and McCarey weren’t appointed to Council until after the rushed passage of the new police union contracts. The two of them only voted with the rest of Council to waste $100,000 on the attempted face-saving measure of a directionless racial equity course, the effectiveness of which cannot be measured. Meanwhile, Spjeldnes will not become a member of Council until January. Of the current Council members responsible for the entire charade, only Sarah Grace faces a competitive election this November.

I’m convinced that if Grace becomes the latest incumbent to lose her seat over our city’s shameful response to the ongoing national reckoning over racial justice and policing, then the remaining Democrats on Council will have no choice but to stop resisting positive reform and start doing what Democrats in many other cities already have done. If we can get rid of Grace, I’m convinced we can finally conduct the promised racial equity review. And with the review’s findings guiding us, we can pass progressive policy that increases police accountability, eliminates wasteful police spending, and improves racial equity.

But to do that, we won’t just need to get rid of Grace. And we won’t just need new people on Council who are open to racial justice and police reform. We’ll also need a committed anti-racist activist on Council to fight for those reforms.

I’m a founding member of Athens County Copwatch and a lifelong racial justice advocate. The first demonstration I ever participated in as a teenager was an NAACP March in response to a cross-burning. The first letter to the editor I ever wrote as a teenager was against the Confederate Flag. I’ve spent the past two years exposing and removing racist cops from our region and holding Athens city officials’ feet to the fire over their failure to meaningfully address racial injustice. When the city failed to conduct its racial equity review, I joined Athens County Copwatch in reviewing 5 years of Athens Police Department records to discover that APD uses force against Black people at 2.6 times the rate it uses force against white people. No other candidate has my record of working to address this issue. If I’m elected, you can count on me to to push the rest of Council in a better direction.

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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane