Defunding police

A group of Athens County residents protested in front of the county’s courthouse Monday evening. Some attendees of the event also spoke during the public participation segment of the Oct. 5 meeting of Athens City Council. Photo by Sydney Dawes.

A short resolution passed by Athens City Council on June 22 to declare racism a public health crisis has resulted in a protest held on the steps of the County Courthouse as residents demanded evidence of action on the topic.

The resolution was initially proposed by council member Sarah Grace, who modeled the resolution after other municipalities which had passed such resolutions across the state, including Dayton and Columbus. Such resolutions are not uncommon from council — other such resolutions passed by council members ranging from declarations of support for marriage equality to support of the National League of Cities’ platform regarding the 2020 Presidential election.

However, residents called in Monday, Oct. 5 to the virtual Athens City Council meeting asking for action in the city.

At the June 22 meeting, Grace cited data from the American Health Association and the Ohio Department of Health which indicates a higher rate of health inequities due to racism and a higher rate of mortality from infant births, heart disease, COVID-19, cancer and more. Because of this, the resolution called for multiple actions from the city of Athens, including that:

  • The mayor create a work group to promote racial equity, community engagement and build partnerships with that “have a history of fighting racism,” as stated by Grace.
  • Elected officials receive racial equity training.
  • The city’s code be reviewed “under a lens of racial equity.”
  • And human resource actions will be taken under the same lens of racial equity, including hiring, firing and bonuses.

At the June meeting, Mayor Steve Patterson commented that there were “several action items that need to be addressed” included in the resolution and expressed his support.

However, public comments made during the end of the Oct. 5 council meeting indicate that the city’s constituents feel no action has yet been taken.

Speakers representing Athens County Copwatch commended the resolution in theory, but voiced dismay over the apparent lack of action following its passage. Some members voiced these thoughts at a protest prior to and during the Oct. 5 council meeting.

Athens County Copwatch consists of multiple county residents who are tasking themselves with “policing the police” through datasets collected through a slew of public records requests. Members of the group hosted a demonstration outside of the Athens County Courthouse Monday night before taking turns speaking during Athens City Council’s regular session.

Speaking first was Damon Krane.

“Tonight we’re here to direct our demands specifically at the members of Athens City Council,” Krane said during the event in front of the county’s courthouse. “And what is it that we’re demanding? That city officials don’t just condemn racism, but they also work to end racism.”

Genesis Vaughn was the first to speak, noting her affiliation with Athens County Copwatch. The organization has publicized data regarding many of Athens County’s law enforcement agencies, including the Athens Police Department, the Athens County Sheriff’s Office and the Ohio University Police Department.

Vaughn noted that almost four months have passed since the resolution was passed, and that the APD union contract will expire on Nov. 1, 2020.

“If you think Athens has no racism, think again,” she told Council, and called for them to remember marginalized communities, such as people of color and the LGBTQ community, as they renegotiate the police union contract this month.

“Let’s stop making empty promises, let’s start protecting our community. Defund APD and make Black lives matter,” she said.

The members of Athens County Copwatch, which has been publicizing this data since June 5, called for radical action within APD, namely:

  • De-militarize by removing deadly weapons
  • Defund the department and redirect funding to social services
  • Decriminalize all drug use and sex work as a harm reduction measure
  • Make illegal no-knock and quick-knock warrants, in addition to civil asset forfeiture and the cash bail system
  • Renegotiate the APD contract with community input
  • Implement a hiring freeze to enact a strict hiring process
  • Allow for community input on the city budgeting process

Damon Krane, also an Athens County Copwatch member, noted the investigation of APD for institutional racism was not satisfactory, if one had taken place at all.

“The course of action that your resolution laid out was totally sensible, you just didn’t follow it. In fact, you immediately contradicted it,” he said. “The very next thing you did, without any investigation having been conducted, was to announce there was no problem with racism in local policing, and that no reallocation of funding would be considered.”

He alleged that no investigation has taken place since. He also noted that APD has continued to receive increases to its budget over the past three years, rising 17 percent since 2017.

“APD is spending about 50 grand alone on uniforms which apparently includes running shoes and many other questionable purchases,” Krane said. “Between APD and OUPD, $10 million a year is being spent on two departments whose jurisdictions are limited to a city of 25,000 people eight months of the year, and about 10,000 people over the summer. That’s substantially higher police spending per capita than what the state of Ohio spends per capita on all local and state policing combined.”

Krane asked for council to do “exactly what you said you were going to do.”

delfin bautista, previously director of Ohio University’s LGBTQ Center and now a leading member of the Southeastern Ohio Rainbow Alliance, as well as a member of Athens County Copwatch, asked the council how they intend to show their constituents that they care.

“I come before you scared, tired and angry,” they said. “In June, City Council issued a bold statement: Racism is a public health crisis...however, I ask you how have we lived into this resolution? how have you moved from words to actions? Words are great, but words are not enough.”

Ellie Hamrick, a previous candidate for Athens City Council and a member of Athens County Copwatch, noted that Athens County faces food insecurity at high rates, including in the city. However, the city’s budget provides no funding for community feeding programs, she said, and $5.5 million for policing. She asserted that police do not keep communities safe, and at best, harass residents.

Brendan Moran, also associated with the County Copwatch, was last to speak, and he noted two models that could replace the current policing model: the White Bird Clinic CAHOOTS model of crisis intervention, used in Eugene, Oregon; and the Cure Violence model, which is used in Chicago to engage youth and mediate high-risk conflicts before violence occurs.

“A Cure Violence model could engage with the public on the streets about the consequences of violence, as well as interrupting and de-escalating conflicts before they become violent,” he said. “Alternatives to police are efficient, cost-effective and humane. We demand the city council defunds APD to fund social services.”

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