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Newtown Florist Club's open-air conversation with police aims to move Gainesville forward
Willie Mitchell, longtime member of the Gainesville City Schools’ board of education, takes the microphone June 18 at Newtown Florist Club’s open-air conversation. The event allowed people in the community to share their experiences with criminal justice officials, who will in turn speak at a July 2 event. - photo by Nick Watson

Through dialogue and hearing the voices of the community, the Rev. Rose Johnson said she hopes Gainesville can “rise up to a greater readiness.”

“I think that we are ready to really move forward and do things in a different way. … We’re not going to climb the mountain in one day. We’re not going to do it hating each other, and we’re not going to do it condemning each other,” said Johnson, who leads the Newtown Florist Club civil rights group. “And we’re not going to do it in such a way that it divides us as a community because united together we can grow strong and we can be stronger.”

There were roughly 20 speakers who came forward and addressed members of the judiciary and law enforcement, discussing national and local issues pertaining to police accountability, jail treatment and potential abuse of power.

The judicial and law enforcement officials in attendance included Superior and State Court Judges, Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney Lee Darragh, Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard, Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish and Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch.

The Bright Teens United For a Future, or B-TUFF, performing arts team perform before the Newtown Florist Club’s open-air conversation. The June 18 event at the midtown pedestrian bridge brought roughly 100 people to listen to community voices regarding potential criminal justice reform. - photo by Nick Watson

The Newtown Florist Club handed a list of policy proposals to the law enforcement and court officials in attendance. Those items in brief 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.

Full video of event

The second part of the open-air conversation will be July 2 at the same location, where law enforcement and judiciary officials will share their concerns with the community.

Johnson said she was concerned that people’s feelings may get hurt “and they’re going to feel condemned or indicted.”

“It is easier to be in this place, listening to what we have listened to today, than to be in Atlanta or Minnesota or Seattle or any of those other communities where people are not listening and they’re not talking to each other,” Johnson said.

The first speaker of the night was Mary Bowman, who introduced herself as a “conservative Republican who understands my white privilege.”

Bowman referenced the death of George Floyd, who was held down by the knee of a police officer for roughly eight minutes and 46 seconds in a widely circulated video. 

The 46-year-old man died while being detained by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Four officers were fired, and criminal charges have been filed.

“Watching this video has made me and many others in our country lose trust in our police departments, so how do we rebuild trust here in our community? How do we keep our community and our police officers safe here in Gainesville and Hall County? How will our city police chief and our county sheriff handle these types of situations if they occur here in the future?” Bowman asked.

Bowman advocated for Gainesville Police and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office to implement a citizen’s review board.

Shayla Bush discussed the issue of community policing, where she felt there are officers all along Athens Street while there is less of a presence in other parts of town.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, the statistics show that there’s more crime in that area.’ But if we’re overpolicing, then the crime shouldn’t be there anymore,” she said.

Bush called for better relationships between law enforcement and the community.