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Gainesville police chief, Newtown discuss police reforms since summer protests
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Newtown Florist Club Executive Director Rose Johnson prepares Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, for a call with Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish to follow up on proposed police reforms since the summer protests. - photo by Scott Rogers

More than eight months since the protests in Gainesville sparked by the death of George Floyd and others, Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish and the Newtown Florist Club regrouped Monday, Feb. 8, to discuss the path forward in police reform and community relations.

“We cannot be the kind of community that feels like trouble will not come to our door, because all of the incidents that have happened nationwide makes it clear to any community that you can go to sleep one night, wake up in the morning and chaos is at your front door,” the club’s executive director the Rev. Rose Johnson said.

Floyd, 46, died May 25 while being detained by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A widely circulated video showed Floyd held down by the knee of a police officer for roughly eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Four officers were fired, and criminal charges were filed.

The club held two open-air conversations over the summer, the first letting community members share concerns with law enforcement and the judiciary. Police and court officials were able to share their concerns at the second event.

A list of policy recommendations were shared with law enforcement leaders, who have since discussed where their department stands on certain issues and where they hope to improve on others.

Since the conversations last year, Johnson said they have continually fielded questions from the community about what has been done. She said she hoped to have the conversation Monday as a “a forum for the chief to just talk about the changes that have been made,” to hear questions from the community and to continue informing the public.

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Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish answers a question from the audience Thursday, July 2, at the Newtown Florist Club’s open-air conversation. The chief responded to concerns submitted by members of the public such as minority hiring, transparency and training. - photo by Nick Watson

“In our nation right now, we are at a very vulnerable place,” Johnson said. “The same issues that existed prior to COVID that brought us to the conversations, they’re still there.”

Parrish said Monday one of the pieces of reform he felt was important was working with the Hall County Solicitor’s Office on citing instead of arresting on certain minor offenses. 

Those offenses include misdemeanor marijuana charges, shoplifting, driving without a license and city ordinance violations.

“When we talk about petty theft, the business owner is able to get that person before court (and) put in some things to protect their business, but at the same time, we’re not tying somebody up in this cycle of probation and excessive fees that’s 10 times what they stole anyway,” Parrish said.

Parrish announced in August his intention to create a citizen input group, though his efforts have been stalled by COVID. The police chief said he had hoped to have the group’s first meeting in November, which was when COVID cases started to increase at Northeast Georgia Health System. 

“I don’t want it to just be a box that we check off to say we did it,” Parrish said. “It’s something that I want face-to-face conversation with.”

Parrish said his new goal would be empanneling the group within the next five to six weeks and start conversations. Gainesville Police have not released the names of who would be on this committee.

Parrish, however, said he thought it would be quite difficult to accomplish a similar goal: a civilian review board for excessive force.

“The issue becomes the years and years of knowledge of understanding all the legal ramifications in a review,” the police chief said. “I’m not saying that they’re absolutely out of the question. What I’m saying is I think there is so much training that would have to go into somebody understanding.”

Sabastian Wilson, who moderated the event along with Johnson, brought up the idea of making more of the policy information discussed during these meetings available on the city’s website.

“There’s not really anywhere on the website that denotes to finding this type of information so far as I can tell just as a regular citizen trying to navigate the website, trying to figure out some things about my local law enforcement and how it affects my immediate life,” Wilson said.

Wilson recommended the website for the Gainesville Police Department in Florida, which had links to department policies and how to contact someone for clarity on this information.

Parrish said he liked the model shown to him and that he would work with the city’s communications team, as the city is in the process of revamping the website.

On the issue of diversity hiring, the police chief said they are still striving to have an agency with officers matching the demographics of the community especially by increasing the representation for Latinos and women.

“If we get somebody that’s bilingual, that is a huge boost to our force,” Parrish said.

A key issue being discussed by many law enforcement agencies is finding a way to market the rewards of starting a career in policing, Parrish said.

“There is a huge anti-police sentiment going across the country, and I understand why young men and women don’t want to get in this profession,” he said.

The March 13 death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, has led groups like the Newtown Florist Club to scrutinize the use of “no-knock warrants,” which have been used by police to enter a home without announcing themselves.

Parrish said he would be against the total abolition of this type of warrant, though he said he would explore how to get into writing that “contraband is not a reason for a no-knock warrant.”

An investigator seeking a “no-knock warrant” would need to seek Parrish’s approval before it is presented to a judge. Historically for law enforcement, they have been allowed for the protection of life and the preservation of evidence.

“There’s a thought that … they will get rid of whatever the evidence is before we can get in the house and secure it,” Parrish said. “That evidence is not worth a human life. Most of the times that’s drugs, so it’s not worth a human life.”


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