Athens-Clarke County police will not cooperate with any federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement effort to round up local residents based on their immigration status, Chief Scott Freeman said at a Tuesday town hall meeting at Gaines Elementary School.
“We are not immigration enforcement. That is a federal responsibility,” Freeman said with regard to his department’s interaction with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.
“We want anybody, regardless of their legal status, to be able to identify themselves and seek assistance without hesitation, anxiety or fear,” Freeman continued, before pledging that the police department will not investigate an individual’s citizenship status unless it relates to an alleged crime, and will not cooperate or assist ICE with any “round-ups” based on immigration status.
Freeman also used the town hall meeting to talk about the department’s commitment to “community-oriented policing,” a law-enforcement philosophy that encourages police to develop relationships with the community outside of their traditional roles.
“We’re being proactive rather than reactive,” Freeman told a crowd of nearly 50 people. “We can stop a lot of problems before they happen with a strong relationship with the community.”
The proactive approach adopted by Athens-Clarke police includes 37 outreach programs, Freeman said, such as the Citizen Police Academy, Cops & Kids Basketball and town hall meetings, all of which support the community-oriented policing philosophy.
Questions from citizens focused on three areas: homelessness, gang violence and police coverage — the number of officers on patrol at any given time.
Commenting on homelessness and the gang problem, Freeman told the audience, “These are not police problems that we can arrest our way out of. We need a community call to action; the police are just one part of the equation.”
Regarding police coverage of the community, Freeman said the number of officers on patrol is both a budgetary issue and a standards issue.
“If you want more police officers, call the mayor, call your commissioner,” he said, adding that while the population of the county has grown dramatically in the last 10 years, the number of police officers has remained capped at 240.
Freeman also said it is difficult to hire and maintain a highly trained and highly skilled police force, but added that his department “will never lower their hiring standards just to put a body on the road.”
Also at Tuesday’s town hall, Freeman outlined the department’s strategic vision plan, a formal effort to establish long-term goals for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department.
According to a plan document, the department will formally “embrace and practice community-oriented, problem-oriented, and constitutional policing philosophies. Educating the public, mentoring the youth, and involving community stakeholders are the foundations of our service delivery and crime prevention strategies.”
The plan, available online at athensclarkecounty.com/200/Police, lays out five goals, augmented with specific objectives.
One goal is to reduce and prevent crime, which the department plans to address by acquiring adequate resources and focusing some of those additional resources on high-crime areas, reducing juvenile delinquency, improving youth safety and reducing gang violence.
Another goal is to enhance community trust, legitimacy and accountability. To meet this goal, the department plans to create an organizational culture that embodies transparency and enhances interaction with the community.
Freeman said Tuesday that the body cameras now used by police officers are part of meeting this goal.
“We want to ensure transparency in an incident whether it is good or bad,” Freeman said. “We will take ownership, hold ourselves accountable, take appropriate action and move forward whenever necessary.”
A third goal is to provide the highest-quality public safety communications. In that regard, the department will attempt to increase the number of communications officers and implement an emergency medical dispatch service.
The fourth goal is to work toward organizational health and effectiveness, which the department will meet, in part, by implementing efficient and cost-effective polices and procedures.
The final goal of the plan is to recruit, develop and maintain a high-quality workforce that reflects the diverse population of Athens-Clarke County.
A second town hall meeting with Freeman is scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday at Chase Street Elementary School, 757 N. Chase St. near Prince Avenue.