In the first week of jury selection in the trial of three white men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery, prosecutors and defense lawyers questioned potential jurors over whether they could be impartial in deciding the fate of the accused. Race was the measuring stick.
Have you been denied opportunities based on race or ethnicity? Have you participated in demonstrations for social justice? Do you believe that police do not treat white and Black people equally?
In answer to the last question, nine of the 20 well-dressed adults in one group of prospective jurors last Thursday raised their hands in the affirmative.
“I don’t know what you want to hear from me on that. I just feel like it’s true,” said Juror 218, a Black self-employed woman who grew up in Brunswick.
The 25-year-old Arbery, who was Black, wasn’t killed by uniformed law enforcement personnel. But the Glynn County Police Department’s handling of the case has put an uncomfortable spotlight on the majority minority city of Brunswick and the surrounding majority white county and prompted searing discussions about the extent to which racism influences the policies and practices of local police.
On Feb. 23,2020, Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan chased and fatally shot Arbery while he was jogging through their Satilla Shores neighborhood. For 73 days, county police made no arrests.
Originally, the department described Arbery’s death as a suspicious incident, not manslaughter or murder. That’s despite possessing cell phone video evidence that showed the circumstances around Arbery’s shooting. At least two district attorneys who recused themselves from the case due to their ties with one or more defendants did not believe that the recorded actions constituted a crime. When the Georgia Bureau of Investigation finally made arrests, the warrants were based on the same video.
To many, the handling of Arbery’s case reflected a persistent racial bias in Glynn County’s law enforcement agencies. To determine whether this perception of bias has foundation in fact, The Current undertook a six-month examination of data obtained from both Brunswick and Glynn County police departments. For the purposes of this story, greater attention was given to data acquired from county police, who had jurisdiction in the investigation into Arbery’s death.
Numbers show patterns
Analysis of the data was hampered by the lack of systematic collection of data that records the work of local law enforcement, a problem endemic across the state. For example: Glynn County police said they only maintained policing records for the years dating to 2018; and demographic data wasn’t always recorded. For this reason, while it isn’t possible to draw a sweeping, statistically based portrait about how race influences policing in Glynn County, the data still indicates patterns of conduct that independent law enforcement experts say are troubling:
- For years, the makeup of the 122-strong Glynn County Police Department has not reflected the community it serves. In 2017 only 12% of the officers were Black, while U.S. Census figures show the county was 26% Black. In 2021, the percentage of officers who are non-white rose to 22%.
- The most common encounter between police and the public is the traffic stop, and in Glynn County Black drivers are more often ticketed than white drivers, in relation to their percentage of the population, according to three years of records that the police department provided to The Current.
- Once pulled over, Black drivers were more likely to be ticketed for a reason not necessarily linked to traffic safety, raising questions about the motive for the traffic stop in the first place.
- 911 calls between 2018-2020 showed that 77% of the calls reporting “suspicious persons” came from majority white neighborhoods—numbers that suggest policing priorities and methods in Glynn County may be influenced by the biases of county residents themselves. Eighteen such 911 calls came from Satilla Shores in the six months leading up to Arbery’s death.
These and other findings reinforce the conclusion of an audit of the Glynn County Police Department carried out by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) in 2017. The association’s examiners found that implicit bias could be a problem. While the department had a policy that prohibits racial or ethnic profiling by officers and requires diversity training for its force each year, the auditors were “unable to verify that this training has occurred on a regular basis and that accurate records are being maintained,” according to the 154-page report.
According to a past president of the police chiefs’ association, the issues uncovered in The Current’s reporting suggest that policing in Glynn County needs improvement.
“If you want to establish trust between police and the community you serve, there is no substitute for data. It keeps us accountable to our communities and gives our neighbors a reason to trust us,” says LaGrange Police Chief Louis Dekmar. Dekmar, who has run his Georgia town’s police department for more than 30 years, had no role in the audit of the Glynn department.
The Glynn County Police did not respond to numerous requests to discuss The Current’s data analysis or to make Chief Jacques Battiste, who took over the force this summer, available for an interview. Privately, officers say that GCPD treats everyone with respect. Battiste, the first Black chief in the department, is making the recruitment of diversity candidates a priority and, as of this summer, the department is rewriting its policing manual as a step towards renewing accreditation. The department has not mentioned any efforts to revamp and upgrade data collection, however.
A culture of cronyism
Between 2010 and 2020 Glynn County has had three police chiefs. Previous reporting by The Current shows a pattern of defects within the department, which has been accused of cover-ups and cronyism, according to emails, official reports and grand jury documents.
Up until 2017, the county police were accredited, which in the state is a voluntary process but one that connotes high standards of professionalism. Matt Doering served as chief for 14 years but left the department in 2017, after he allowed the department’s accreditation to expire and amid the continuing controversy over the police shooting in 2010 of Caroline Small, a white mother with a history of mental illness. The officers involved in the shooting were never prosecuted for Small’s death, even after evidence emerged five years later that police falsified evidence for a grand jury investigating the two officers’ actions. Doering died after an extended illness in 2018.
Doering’s successor, John Powell, oversaw the audit by the IACP, which was aimed at improving policing and burnishing the department’s battered image. Nevertheless, during his tenure, the department drew still more controversy. In 2018, Lt. Robert “Cory” Sasser killed his estranged wife then himself. Also, members of the Glynn-Brunswick Narcotics Enforcement Team were investigated for having sex with confidential informants, running rogue operations and lying under oath.
Powell, his former chief of staff and two senior officers were indicted in February 2020 on a host of charges, including witness tampering, attempting to suborn perjury and violating their oath of office in connection with that investigation.
Before Powell was dismissed from his job in January 2021, he told the Glynn Board of Commissioners that he was addressing some of the more than 100 recommendations made by the IACP auditors.
The areas that Powell seemed to prioritize were personnel related, including demoting two captains and reassigning officers, according to police and government emails obtained by The Current. He did not focus on the recommendations the auditors gave to alleviate the potential problem of implicit bias in the force, nor did he step up efforts to collect data on the work of police officers, according to three retired Glynn police officers.
Deciding who is suspicious
Those former officers say policing methods in Glynn were sanctioned by the department’s leadership. An analysis of 911 calls suggests that policing may be influenced by the biases of the county residents themselves.
In Georgia, 911 operators have a catch-all category known as “suspicious persons,” but local law enforcement doesn’t have a clear definition of what a “suspicious person” is, according to Chris Bruce, the policy director for the Georgia office of the American Civil Liberties Union. In practice, such a person is understood to be a stranger who makes a caller uncomfortable or a person who is considered out of place in a certain neighborhood. “In Georgia typically it becomes a euphemism for white people who are uncomfortable with Black people,” says Bruce.
While the definition is vague, the feeling is deeply rooted across the county. As the Black prospective Juror 218 in the Arbery murder case explained to the defense lawyers during jury selection: “Most of the time you really don’t see a lot of young Black people running or jogging anywhere,” she said. “It’s like it would be out of the ordinary to see them just exercising like that. I feel like sometimes, in some areas, we don’t belong.”
While Brunswick – 57% Black – and the larger Glynn County – 65% white – are separate police jurisdictions, they share emergency services such as the 911 call center. Between 2018 and 2020, residents called 911 operators 16,838 times to report “suspicious persons” in their neighborhood, according to an analysis of data by The Current in conjunction with The Washington Post. In 2018 alone, the number reached 6,307. Over the three years, 77% of all 911 calls across Glynn County’s five zip codes originated in areas that federal census data show are majority white.
Between August 2019 and late February 2020, Glynn police received 18 calls reporting suspicious activities from the Satilla Shores neighborhood, the mostly white neighborhood about two miles from Arbery’s mother’s house where he was living.
On Feb. 11, one of the men on trial for Arbery’s killing, Travis McMichael, called 911 and described a Black man whom he had never seen in his neighborhood. Almost two weeks later, Travis, along with his father Gregory and their neighbor Bryan, chased and allegedly shot Arbery on the street where the McMichaels’ live. In court, the McMichaels’ lawyer has argued that the three men pursued Arbery because the McMichaels thought Arbery might be behind alleged break-ins in the area. Separately, Travis McMichael has claimed that his gun had been stolen from his unlocked car some time before Arbery’s death. No one has been arrested for that incident, and there is no evidence Arbery was involved in any thefts.
Residents: Incidents lead to beliefs
Ask many Brunswick and Glynn residents about the local police, and strong opinions like those expressed by both white and Black prospective jury members come faster than an August thunderstorm.
Take Deosha West, who grew up in Brunswick in a well-known churchgoing family.
Two years ago West, then 28, was pulled over on Altama Avenue by a white police officer while she was driving her mother to the doctor. She was being stopped, he said, because of the excessive tint on the windows of her vehicle. He issued her a ticket. A week later, the same officer pulled her over again in almost exactly the same spot. He accused her of speeding, which West denied. Their exchange got heated. Instead of citing her for alleged speeding, he cited her again for her car windows.
“We went to court and the ticket was thrown out by the judge, but after I was reprimanded for being difficult to the officer,” said West, who recently moved to Atlanta to work at Georgia Tech.
Bobby Henderson grew up in Brunswick’s Dixville neighborhood, a district where public housing abounds and poverty and drugs are rife. When he was 16, he and three high school friends from their advanced placement classes together were driving to another friend’s house for their regular weekend get-together to play cards. A police officer stopped their vehicle, pulled his gun and ordered the four Black youths to get out of the car and onto the ground. The officer searched the car for drugs. When he didn’t find any, he ordered them to go home, never explaining what they were allegedly doing wrong.
That memory was the first thing that came to mind when Henderson, at age 30 and a U.S. Navy veteran, was pulled over as he drove his light blue Dodge minivan littered with crumbs from his young twins’ snacks.
Henderson had left Dixville and become a nuclear electrician in the Navy. After getting out, the 6-foot-2-inch former basketball player moved back to Brunswick with his high school sweetheart to raise their five children. As the officer interrogated him, it was a decision he was regretting. The officer couldn’t provide a reason for pulling him over. Henderson then became annoyed at what he considered harassment. The officer, who was Black, threatened to cite him for an invalid license, a charge that Henderson said was demonstrably false. Henderson told him off and the officer arrested him.
“When it comes to the police, almost everybody has a story like this. Once, you might shrug it off. But again, and again? That pattern is self-evident,” said Henderson, now 45 years old and a manager at Georgia Pacific. “Black people in Glynn County face racism. Full stop.”
Traffic stops and citations
Traffic stops are among the most frequent police duties in Glynn County, but county police do not keep records of all vehicle stops. There is no Georgia law that requires them to do so. There is also no Georgia law that defines racial profiling.
In Glynn, police only track stops resulting in citations. Without the total number of traffic stops as a baseline for comparison, it’s impossible to calculate what community activists believe to be true: that driving while Black is enough probable cause to be pulled over by police.
When asked by The Current to provide all traffic stop data, the department said it only retained information dating to 2018.
Between 2018 and 2020, officers have issued 853 traffic citations to white drivers and 477 citations to Black drivers. On a statistical basis, Black drivers received 35.9% of all traffic tickets over that period. According to 2019 federal census figures, Blacks comprised 26.6% of the county’s population.
The most frequent ticket written for both Black and white drivers was for a suspended license. For Blacks, this occurred 113 times in the three-year period — in other words, one of every four Black drivers who received traffic tickets were cited for this offense. One-fifth of all citations given to white drivers in the same period were for this offense.
Under Georgia law, a driver’s license can be suspended for a variety of reasons, including failure to pay outstanding tickets, failure to pay child support or too many past traffic transgressions. It’s unclear from the data provided by Glynn police how many of the drivers cited for this violation were the registered owner of the car that was stopped. It’s also unclear how a police officer could determine that a driver didn’t have a valid license when they decided to pull over a vehicle.
Chief Dekmar, who has been in charge of the LaGrange force since 1995, says better policing is not rocket science. He says the keys to better public safety, security for police and trust in the community lie in the IACP’s accreditation process. And by keeping robust data as a way to help patrol officers be better public servants and help citizens trust the sincerity of those sworn to protect and serve.
“Folks have a lot of emotions about policing and police reform,” he said. “Training, accountability, data and statistics are the best ways we have to show that we are professional.”
In 2020, five Democratic lawmakers, all members of the Black Caucus, introduced a bill at the state house designed to end racial profiling by police, require data collection and annual reporting about interactions with people of color. The bill died in committee without any Republican supporters.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism provided grant funding for the data reporting in this story. The Washington Post Magazine provided data reporting specialists for analysis.