New Gwinnett advisory board examining county police department policy

Gwinnett County Police Chief Brett West said he hopes a new community advisory board will build relationships for the department in the community. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO
Gwinnett County Police Chief Brett West said he hopes a new community advisory board will build relationships for the department in the community. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

A new Gwinnett County advisory group aims to improve the public’s understanding of policing, while acting as a forum for resident concerns about law enforcement.

The purview of the county’s Police Citizens Advisory Board is broad, and could include everything from reviewing police use-of-force policies to looking at the effects of decriminalizing marijuana.

While Atlanta has a Citizen Review Board, its executive director, Lee Reid, said no other metro county has a similar group looking at police policies.

Reid said Gwinnett’s new board is “a step that provides an opportunity for the community to be involved.”

The county police chief, Brett West, sees it as a way to build community trust. Among the first actions he asked the board to consider was a town hall meeting.

The group, which will meet for the third time this month, grew out of an idea Gwinnett County Commissioner Marlene Fosque had after attending social justice protests last summer that were sparked by national incidents of police brutality.

Fosque said after hearing residents call to defund police and advocate for controls on use-of-force policies, she wanted them to better understand what the county’s police department was already doing.

And she wanted to help officers build trust in the community.

“We’re talking about the present and the future and what we can do differently,” Fosque said. “It’s very important that we listen to what our residents want and do something with it.”

Atlanta’s review board looks at police action, fielding complaints about alleged abuses and making recommendations for disciplinary action. Gwinnett’s will focus on policy.

Fosque said she wanted to be proactive, not reactive. But Reid said he’s in favor of “more robust models” for community engagement with policing.

“It’s a good start,” he said of Gwinnett. “It can always evolve into something else, something more, if it’s not meeting the community’s needs at the outset.”

Reid said he was concerned that the all-volunteer, 10-member board wouldn’t have a full-time staffer able to dedicate time to the group’s work.

Gwinnett has had its share of police incidents that raise questions in the community. Last summer, Officer Michael Oxford, who is white, was fired after video of him using a Taser on a Black woman on her porch went viral.

In February 2020, former Master Police Officer Robert McDonald, who is white, was convicted on charges of aggravated assault, battery and violation of oath of office after he was recorded stomping on a handcuffed, Black motorist following an April 2017 traffic stop.

McDonald was sentenced in November to 10 years’ probation, with the first 11 months to be served on house arrest.

Former Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, who mentored McDonald and was also involved in the incident, pleaded no contest in 2019 to aggravated assault and battery charges. Bongiovanni, who is also white, was sentenced to six months on a work release program and five months of home confinement.

West said having an engaged police advisory board can help improve two-way communication with the department. He said he wants to avoid giving the group suggestions for what they should tackle, for fear of people in the community saying the department is “tossing them softballs.”

While the department has a new community affairs section and is making outreach more of a priority, West said staffing is lean.

“I really don’t have hundreds of people to commit to talking to the community,” he said. “We’re trying to break down those barriers.”

West said he wants protestors and others to know that the department has long banned chokeholds and de-escalation training is already emphasized for officers.

“A lot of things people have been calling for, we’ve been doing anyway,” he said.

Jesse Wormington, a Lawrenceville resident who attended protests last summer that were spurred by the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident killed by a white police officer, said the advisory board sounds like a step in the right direction. Wormington said he’s been discouraged by the lack of progress and hopes the group will give residents a platform for concerns.

“You can’t fix a racial problem in a country immediately,” he said. “It’s little steps, baby steps.”

Board Chair Sean Goldstein said he hopes the group allows residents to have input on the way police interact with the community. Goldstein, a criminal defense attorney who is representing the county Bar Association on the board, said he hopes to see “small tweaks” in the way officers interact with people — at traffic stops, for example, when people who have been pulled over are often embarrassed, nervous and scared.

“If it helps police interact with even one or two citizens in a different way, it’ll be worth it,” he said. “I think it’s going to help the police. Hopefully, it will give them access to voices that maybe wouldn’t have been that involved.”

The other members include representatives from the business community, a mental health expert, a student government appointee and a member representing Gwinnett cities, as well as appointees by each of five Gwinnett County commissioners.

But Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett NAACP, said she was concerned that there were no advocacy groups represented on the board.

“Who calls any one of these organizations or individuals talking about police brutality?” she asked. “It’s an illegitimate board made of people who don’t work in this category.”

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