Cobb County’s efforts to improve the relationship between law enforcement and some members of the community were dealt blow last week with the release of a dashboard recording of a police lieutenant telling a nervous white woman that officers “only kill black people.”
Many police officers insist the scandal is merely the latest example of an ongoing media campaign targeting law enforcement. Meanwhile, some residents, community leaders and experts say racial bias in law enforcement is nothing new, and must be addressed with increased civilian oversight.
Commissioner Lisa Cupid, the only black member of the board and a vocal advocate for police reform, dismissed Lt. Greg Abbott’s explanation that he was trying to “deescalate” the situation.
“To have a leader not only share those words, but then justify it, makes you question how he’s able to manage questionable behavior from those that he leads, if he even can identify questionable behavior,” Cupid said.
She did, however, praise the police chief and county chairman for immediately calling out the behavior as inappropriate and taking action. Their intention to terminate the officer was also commended by the local heads of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
While some have questioned the decision to allow Abbott to retire instead of firing him, the county’s handling of the episode stood in stark contrast to the reaction to Cupid’s own confrontation with the department two years ago.
In 2015, Cupid accused a Cobb police officer of racially profiling her. Apparently unaware that she was a commissioner, he followed her home in an unmarked vehicle, though she says she committed no violations. When she publicly complained, she was met with disbelief and censure from her fellow commissioners and then-Chairman Tim Lee, who accused her of grandstanding.
It took a second confrontation between the same officer and a black motorist a year later before the county took action against the officer, who later resigned.
Steve Gaynor, who heads the local Fraternal Order of Police, said the county is allowing the media to dictate its response to such cases. He accused the police chief of throwing Abbott, a 27-year veteran, “to the wolves” without a proper investigation.
Gaynor said the county police don’t racially profile. Rather, he said the Cobb police are known for “intense enforcement of the law.”
“The reason people feel that they get profiled is because Cobb County actually does their job,” Gaynor said. “That’s why people got frustrated, because the bad guys who were stirring all the racial turmoil don’t want us to do the job anymore.”
Gaynor said he has spoken to many police officers who are looking to leave the department because they are afraid of making a “mistake” like Abbott.
Commission Chairman Mike Boyce, for his part, said he stood firmly behind the police chief’s decision to end Abbott’s employment with the department, not only for the sake of community relations but also out of respect for non-white police officers in the department.
Boyce, a retired Marine Corps colonel, said men and women in uniform are held “to a higher standard.”
“Police officers have to see that, and they have to decide for themselves if that’s the kind of standard they want to live by,” Boyce said.
The incident with Lt. Abbott occurred on July 10, 2016 during a DUI traffic stop. The woman, a passenger, was afraid to reach for her phone because, she said, she’d seen videos of police shootings. Abbott, with apparent sarcasm, told her “we only kill black people.”
The video emerged the same week footage was released showing a different Cobb officer shooting at an unarmed black teen eight times, wounding him and prompting the department to change its use of force policy.
The departure of Abbott and the national media spotlight come at a particularly inopportune time for Cobb. Chief Mike Register, who took over in June, has made community-police relations a priority and recently held the first of what is to be a regular forum with faith leaders.
The county had also started to implement recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which urged the department to address “perceptions of racism.”
If the police department is to overcome those perceptions, they will have to convince people like Heather Washington.
Washington lives off Six Flags Drive in South Cobb. She said she thinks Abbott was making “an attempt at a joke,” but saw his attitude as indicative of general disrespect for black people among Cobb police.
Washington said her teenage daughter was driving home from work on the Fourth of July when she was pulled over for a broken tail light. After checking her license and registration, the officer let her go with a warning. But when the girl got home, both tail lights were working fine, Washington said.
“It’s a holiday. It was late. I know she was driving a raggedy car, and she’s black,” Washington said. “I knew there was nothing wrong because I always make sure that car has the basics.”
Washington said she suspects the officer was fishing for drugs or alcohol. But without a ticket or some other record of the encounter, she saw no way to file a complaint.
There is “a record of Cobb County being leery of black people,” she said. “Unless we as a community, black and white, unless it becomes a louder voice, nothing is going to get done and that’s the problem.”
Some experts say Cobb’s struggles highlight a need for increased civilian oversight.
Brian Corr, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said the debate over community-police relations in Cobb County is happening across the country.
“Of course accountability is very important for any kind of misconduct. But there’s a real need for systems in place before something happens, and I think that’s where the strength of civilian oversight can really be seen,” Corr said.
William Harrison is former chair of the Atlanta Citizens Review Board and running for Atlanta City Council.
He warned that the county was leaving itself vulnerable to legal challenges and expressed hope the latest incident would rekindle conversation about a citizen review board. Commissioner Cupid had championed such a body but failed to gain the board’s support.
“A review board will not magically make situations like this disappear, but what it does is it allows the community to be involved with the police agencies so they can work together,” Harrison said.
Cobb Public Safety Director Sam Heaton wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he believes “with proper leadership in place, a civilian oversight body is not needed.”
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