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Newtown civil rights club revisits status of its push for police reforms in Gainesville, Hall County

A local initiative for law enforcement officers to use body cameras started with a person sharing their concern with the Newtown Florist Club.

The person told the Gainesville civil rights group that there were interactions between police and citizens where the body camera would turn off in the middle of the incidents.

“In the courtroom, there is not enough evidence of the encounter to support the person who is in court, because there is no body cam evidence, so the court takes the side of the officer all of the time or most of the time,” said the Rev. Rose Johnson, the florist club’s executive director.

It’s one of many changes the group has proposed.

Johnson and the club’s public policy committee held a public meeting Monday, Oct. 12, by Zoom and Facebook Live to report back to the community on the issues it has championed.

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.

The recommendations presented to law enforcement were:

• Body cameras for all officers interacting with the public, “establish discipline” for officers who make an arrest without body camera footage and make all use-of-force body camera footage public

• A citizen oversight committee to review use-of-force incidents when the arrestee is harmed

• Ban no-knock warrants

• Ban chokeholds and establish penalties for officers violating the policy

• More training on de-escalation, with the recommendation being one to two hours annually

• Prioritizing minority hiring

• No more military gear to law enforcement

• Requiring officers to intervene “when they knowingly witness and contribute to another officer’s violation of law enforcement policy”

• End of civil forfeiture, a process by which property seized during a criminal investigation can later be sold at auction and fund law enforcement agencies

• Requiring law enforcement to provide identifying information and a card with instructions on filing a complaint

• Protocols on eliminating “unconscious bias and racial profiling”

• Encouraging patrol officers to “use discretion when making traffic stops to limit arrests”

• End “criminalization of poverty,” which includes policies regarding urban camping, panhandling and cash bail. They also request hiring social workers and mental health partnerships to assist in calls for service, as well as having court fines and fees on an income-based sliding scale

• Making statistics on training, use of force, arrests and other information publicly accessible.

Related coverage

The Times has covered several issues related to police reforms following the death of George Floyd and others, local protests and the efforts of the Newtown Florist Club.

Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish and Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch both have both said chokeholds are banned except in situations where deadly force may be necessary.

The Newtown Florist Club created a “Did you know?” flyer concerning the ban on chokeholds, the body camera requirement for officers, the mandated “duty to intervene” when an officer witnesses a colleague using excessive force and the recent change by Gainesville Police to cite rather than arrest for certain misdemeanor offenses.  

Christen Lott Hunte, a member of the Newtown Florist Club public policy committee, said she hopes the “duty to intervene” will be enforced because of the lives it could save.

“You would think it would be easy, but sometimes people don’t want to be ostracized and things like that,” she said. “So I’m hoping and praying that they do speak up, and I want the members of the community to speak up. Do not say, ‘My voice does not mean anything.’ You do your due diligence as well.”

Since the open-air conversations, Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said he has committed to tripling the amount of training on de-escalation, and both Parrish and Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said they would like to have citizen-and-police panels that would meet somewhat regularly.

During the opening minutes of the meeting, Lott Hunte said the concept of “social justice” goes far beyond the cause of police reform. It’s an idea that spans issues such as affordable housing, homelessness and mass incarceration, she said.

“Social justice is not just for Black Americans,” Lott Hunte said. “It’s for all who have been unjustly targeted by our systems.”

Beyond the items the club addressed over the summer, members of the public policy committee discussed the 287(g) program and its effects on Gainesville’s Latino community.

The program is a joint operation by local law enforcement and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in which employees at the Hall County Jail screen people brought into the facility for their immigration status. Those flagged to be undocumented immigrants can be detained for up to 48 hours until ICE takes them into custody.

There is a fear in the Latino community that getting involved with law enforcement could lead to being caught up in the 287(g) program and eventually deported, said public policy committee member Elton Garcia.

“Within the Hispanic community, there are a lot of households with mixed statuses … where say the children are citizens and are born here but their parents are undocumented,” Garcia said. “So that’s always the fear that’s going on.”

Peter Wosnik, a criminal defense attorney, spoke about strategies to hold law enforcement and judicial officials accountable

Wosnik said it is important for people to vet any newly elected prosecutor and/or district attorney to make sure they are “willing to prosecute folks in law enforcement if they clearly use excessive force.”