Panelists in a virtual talk led by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak discussed criminal justice issues in Georgia on Aug. 25, 2020. (Screenshot of event)

How to rebuild trust in Georgia communities between police officers and local residents was a focus of talks Tuesday between representatives from metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state chapter of the NAACP.

Capitol Beat News Service
This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

Spearheaded by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak of the Northern District of Georgia, the virtual town hall-style talk touched on how officer-involved shootings are investigated, what can be done to improve officer training and the impact of calls for reduced police funding in local communities across the country.

“We have to acknowledge that right now we’re hurting,” Pak said. “We have to show some empathy and some patience, condemn the violence and talk to each other to find a common solution that all of us can agree with and buy into.”

The talk was held amid a backdrop of continuing protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the officer-caused killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May and the local arrests of two men involved in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Protesters have also decried the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer in June shortly after nationwide protests gained steam. His killing prompted the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief at the time.

And new protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., Sunday night after 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police while trying to get into his SUV as his three children inside the vehicle looked on.

“We have to acknowledge that right now we’re hurting….We have to show some empathy and some patience, condemn the violence and talk to each other to find a common solution that all of us can agree with and buy into.”

U.S. Attorney bjay pak

Several communities nationwide have pressed for reducing funds for local police departments in recent months, marking a policy that has drawn sharp denouncement from many politicians including President Donald Trump.

James Woodall, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Georgia chapter, said the conversation around police funding requires more nuance than a wholesale call for fewer law enforcement dollars.

He said funding should be driven by local decisions based on the needs of individual communities, not by political talking points on either side of the partisan divide.

“We have to be having these conversations about what’s happening on the ground and not listen to the national voices and the national movements that are trying to underwrite what’s actually happening at the grassroots level,” Woodall said.

Chief Rodney Bryant, who now heads the Atlanta Police Department in an interim capacity, said he disagrees with efforts to reduce police funding given the increased resources departments like his will need to improve training. But he agreed funding decisions should be kept strictly at the local level.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it should lie with the community itself to make that determination,” Bryant said.

Bryant added he aims to have Atlanta officers evaluated more regularly to identify potential training shortcomings and to incorporate peer intervention in training programs so that it is ingrained in officers to report misconduct from their colleagues, rather than turn a blind eye for fear of being ostracized.

“You will have to do it,” Bryant said of peer intervention. “And if you don’t, you will be held accountable.”

Bryant also backed efforts by state lawmakers to evaluate whether Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law should be changed, calling it “a very dangerous situation for both parties, especially when it goes wrong.”

Chief James Conroy, who heads up the Roswell Police Department, echoed remarks from others during Tuesday’s talk that local jurisdictions need more recourse to assist persons with mental health issues via professional services, rather than by calling police.

To that end, Conroy also highlighted the importance for citizens to involve themselves more in community engagement in order to better partner with law enforcement agencies and identify specific, local points of improvement for police to make.

“Relationships are the key to successful and effective law enforcement,” Conroy said. “If we don’t have strong relationships with our community built on trust and transparency, we’re going to fail.”

Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, whose office is prosecuting the two men arrested in the Arbery fatal shooting, noted communication between law enforcement and many different community groups is critical to build trust between officers and residents.

“It really takes all of us recognizing what our blind spots are,” Holmes said.

Beau Evans is a reporter for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.