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THE GUN AND THE BAG, part 6: Today, Gainesville Police has better bodycams, more mental health resources and increased training
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Gainesville Police upgraded in April 2020 to the Axon body camera system. - photo by Gainesville Police Department

This article is part six of a six-part series. Readers can start with part one.

When five officers approached Adam English, who had reportedly been waving a gun around Sept. 20, 2019, outside a medical office building in Gainesville, two body cameras recorded video of the incident. In seconds, officers shot English. He later died at the nearby Northeast Georgia Medical Center. English’s family and friends have since said he suffered from drug and other mental health problems.

In the two years since, much has changed at the Gainesville Police Department, but Lt. Kevin Holbrook said the English case has not affected how law enforcement responds to calls in which a person may be armed.

The gun and the bag: A series

This article is part six of a six-part series telling the story of Adam English, who on Sept. 20, 2019, was shot and killed by police outside a medical office on a busy thoroughfare in Gainesville after reports he was waving a gun around. The Times provided coverage as the story unfolded. When the case was closed, the investigative files became available under open records laws, and The Times paid $289.36 to obtain the records, including interviews, bodycam footage and photos. This series is an effort to more fully tell what happened on the side of Jesse Jewell Parkway that day.

The district attorney did not move forward with charges against the two officers involved. A civil lawsuit is still moving forward in the court system. 

The Gainesville community discussed police-involved shootings and reforms in the wake of the death of George Floyd and local protests, and Gainesville Police officials have previously spoken with The Times about de-escalation training, body camera, mental health and other police accountability issues. The Times this month again asked Gainesville Police questions about reforms and offered to sit down with them to discuss the issues. The department sent written responses and answered some follow-up questions by phone.

The department has worked to increase de-escalation training, upgrade its body cameras and has added a mental health clinician to its ranks.

More de-escalation training

Chief Jay Parrish told the Gainesville City Council in August 2020 that he wanted to triple the number of training hours each officer receives annually in de-escalation, going from five to 10 hours per officer to 30-40 hours.

Holbrook said in a follow-up phone call that they are roughly 90% of the way there, with another training session scheduled next month that would get every officer to that goal.

“We didn’t want to be redundant with it, so we have a number of different training sessions that we have offered throughout the year,” Holbrook said. “Those range from verbal judo to the crisis intervention training to mental health training.”

Crisis intervention training involves scenario-based “in-field learning” working with mental health professionals, while verbal judo handles these scenarios in a classroom.

Verbal judo has been defined as a way for an officer to use words to effectively discover what the problem is and de-escalate the situation.

“We don’t want to have to use force, so the situation is we try to de-escalate, we’re communicating, we’re talking through, we’re trying to understand what’s going on,” Gainesville police spokeswoman Cpl. Jessica Van previously told The Times.

Bodycam policy changes and upgrades

Bodycam use has become a national topic and one raised by the Newtown Florist Club, Gainesville’s civil rights club, in 2020 conversations with law enforcement.

The body camera policy at the time of English’s shooting was similar to what it is today.

Holbrook said he was not equipped with a body camera in September 2019, and the GBI report stated Officer Nick Smith did not have video/audio recording devices at the time of the shooting. 

Now, Holbrook and all uniformed police officers carry the equipment.

Footage was recorded on Officer Jonathan Fowler and Chris Witt’s bodycams. Officer Jose Hernandez did not turn his body camera on until after the shooting, according to the GBI report.

According to the most recently revised body camera policy, officers “shall activate their body worn camera to record all contacts with citizens in the performance of official duties.” Digital audio recorders shall be used when the camera is inoperable or unavailable.

“The in-car and/or body worn audio/video equipment shall remain activated until the event is completed, to include transportation of detainees to a detention facility, in order to ensure the integrity of the recording,” according to the policy.

If the entire incident is not recorded or is interrupted, an officer also must document why this happened. In those cases, disciplinary action could be taken.

“As with any violations of policy, the totality of the circumstances and the employment history of the officer are taken into account when determining disciplinary action,” Holbrook wrote in an email Sept. 16.

In April 2020, the department upgraded its bodycam equipment to the same system used by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. 

Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish said then that he felt the new system was “less likely to be interrupted,” as the previous cameras had issues with the camera head separating from the memory source.

"If they got to rolling around on the ground or whatever, if that thing came disconnected or moved the least little bit, it would become fuzzy or you could hear things but couldn't see them or you could see them and couldn't hear them,” Parrish previously told The Times.

Some cameras also have automatic triggers tied to the emergency lights and sirens on the patrol vehicle, though Holbrook noted that it is mainly on “our newer vehicles with new mobile video camera systems.” Holbrook said he was unsure of what percentage of the department has this newer technology.

Added mental health clinician

In December 2019, three months after English was shot, a mental health clinician position was added through a a $55,000 grant from the North Georgia Community Foundation. 

Officials have said English’s death was not the impetus for that move.

Whether that clinician would respond to a case in which the suspect is armed is complex.

“Our number one goal is safety of all parties involved, and we have to ensure a scene is safe before we can allow anyone else into that scene,” Holbrook said.

The mental health clinician, though, has been instrumental in connecting people in need of mental services. English’s family has said he was in the area looking for such resources.

In her first year, mental health clinician Anjana Freeman helped to connect 87 individuals to resources in the community, with 32 of those people following through with the resource and receiving support, Holbrook wrote in an email.

Anjana Freeman, center, Gainesville Police Department's mental health clinician, stands on the front step of a home with Officer Natalia Ramirez. Freeman works to connect people with resources and follow up with families in need of mental health or substance abuse help. - photo by Gainesville Police Department

Freeman prepared a report documenting her interactions with the community, including one man who “suffers from severe psychosis and has no social or financial resources.” 

Freeman wrote that police interacted with this man at least three times since May 2020.

After a second 1013 order — which triggers an involuntary mental health evaluation for people deemed a risk to themselves or others — Freeman said she worked with the psychiatric teams at Northeast Georgia Health System and Avita Community Partners “to prevent further crises, helping him get placed in housing and receiving in-home psychiatric care.”

The position was set to be funded through this year’s Medical Center Open, an annual golf tournament which was postponed due to COVID-19. The community foundation now is set to keep it funded until the open can be held.

Chris Bray, NGHS Foundation president and chief development officer, said the foundation is committed to making sure the department has the necessary funds to continue their work over the next year, though the exact donation amount is unclear.

“We are honored that the NGHS Foundation has committed to keep this program funded through October of 2022, at which time we will be the recipients of the funds raised from the Medical Center Open,” Holbrook wrote in an email. “This current funding commitment will allow us to expand the program by hiring a second clinician. The added staff will increase the availability of the resource to our officers and citizens.”

The department did not respond to a follow-up question on what the budgetary plans will be past October 2022.