The Limestone County NAACP wants the Athens Police Department to hold its officers accountable for their actions and the city of Athens to hire more African-American police officers.
Those were the messages brought to a packed meeting of the Athens City Council Monday night, though not all city officials were pleased with the allegations and suggestions as exchanges became progressively more pointed.
By meeting’s end, District 4 Councilman Jim Hickman had asked for an apology from Limestone NAACP President Wilbert Woodruff. Police Chief Floyd Johnson offered no comment, and council President Jimmy Gill, the only African-American on the board, offered no rebuttal or defense of the city.
Hickman’s request for an apology stemmed from the NAACP’s last visit to the council on July 23 in which the group took the city to task for hiring Tony Kirk as the new fire chief over an African-American candidate who NAACP leaders said was just as qualified. They told council members they would like to see an end to “back-room deals” that involve hiring of personnel.
“After that meeting, you told me ‘Don’t take it personally,’” Hickman told Woodruff. “I went home and got to thinking very seriously about it, and I did take it personally. In your presentation you said, ‘We have some dishonesty on our council’ and made ‘back-room deals.’ … When you call me dishonest, I take that very personally. I think you owe Mr. Kirk and this council an apology.”
Woodruff said his comments were not directed at Hickman or any individual council member.
“We just said we’d like for the council to do away with back-room deals,” he said. “I never said I thought (you were dishonest).”
State NAACP President Benard Simelton praised Johnson and the police officers, but said the group has received “a lot of cases and complaints” from members of the community who have alleged police officer misconduct.
He said there was a complaint “several years ago” in which residents of a part of town known as Box Alley claimed officers harassed them and stopped them for no reason. Another complaint, he said, stemmed from a woman who was pulled over and approached by an officer who then unsnapped his gun holster.
“She had her children in the car and it frightened them,” Simelton said. “That’s unbecoming of a police officer.”
In another alleged incident, he claims Athens Police entered the home of a handicapped man and told him to get on the ground. Simelton said the person told officers he could not get on the ground, but officers forced him down.
He said many complaints are forwarded on to the department and nothing is done to follow up. He added it’s a conflict of interest to have cases of misconduct investigated by the chief.
“That’s like the fox watching the hen house,” he said. “We believe Athens has a problem. … It’s the city’s responsibility. We will never be satisfied until, as Dr. King said, ‘justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
The Rev. Eugene English implored the council to take greater steps to recruit African-Americans for the police department and to “deal with the perception” that may keep blacks from being interested in becoming an Athens police officer.
“It hinders the ability to pull people in because no one wants to go where they’re not wanted,” he said. “There is a historical record that they’re not (on the force). We need to tackle those perceptions. … We don’t want to be one of those cities you see on CNN where a cop situation blows up. We want to work now to move things along and get African-Americans on the police force.”
English credited the city’s fire department for hiring African-American firefighters, and asked the city’s police department to follow suit. He said when children visit those departments on school field trips, it’s important that they see African-Americans in those positions.
“But you see them in Huntsville,” he said. “It’s not healthy for (children’s) development to never see blacks serving in those roles.”
Like Simelton, Diane Steele, first vice president of the Limestone NAACP, praised Johnson who became chief in February. However, she offered suggestions for the department to help “avoid the escalation of future misconduct” incidents.
She said the NAACP had prepared several suggestions for the city, but outlined only a few at the meeting including a greater emphasis by the city to avoid civil lawsuits and federal investigations. She also recommended the city equip each officer with a personal micro digital video camera to ensure greater protection of police officers and citizens.
Steele said the NAACP also recommends that Athens has a police force that mirrors the racial makeup of the city and establishing a citizens review board to investigate misconduct cases.
“It gives citizens a venue to air grievances and voice recommendations,” she said.
Steele also asked the city to stop “moving the goal post” in regard to hiring African-American applicants, to which Councilman Harold Wales asked for a clarification on the comment.
“There was an opportunity to hire a very qualified African-American,” she said, though she did not specifically address the position.
Sensing Steele may have been talking about the hiring of Kirk, Wales said the city should strive to hire the “most qualified” person, not necessarily the “highest quality.”