“My priority has been and always will be keeping our deputies and our citizens safe. I will do everything in my power to stop anyone intent on harming others, regardless of their skin color. All lives, and I repeat, ALL LIVES matter.”
Gwinnett County’s sheriff on Tuesday blasted what he described as a growing “culture of police hatred,” wading headlong into a debate raging nationally and in metro Atlanta over police, race and activism.
In an unusual and strongly worded statement released by his office, Butch Conway said that by unfairly injecting accusations of racism and brutality into police work, activists have helped create a charged atmosphere that has placed officers at risk.
“Their message is that police lives don’t matter, which sure sounds like a hate group to me,” Conway said.
Some local activists immediately denounced the five-term lawman as out of touch and in denial regarding problems with police.
Shaun King, a local leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, labeled Conway’s message “one of the most ignorant, uninformed and inflammatory statements” he’d heard from a law enforcement official.
Conway’s language in the roughly 800 word statement echoed that of Black Lives Matter, which has emerged as an outspoken critic of policing tactics. “All lives, and I repeat, ALL LIVES matter,” he wrote.
Police have been under intense scrutiny nationally since a police officer shot and killed a black man in Ferguson, Missouri, a little more than a year ago. Deaths involving police have followed in Baltimore and North Charleston, S.C. Several local police incidents have also generated criticism, including four controversial deaths in DeKalb County over the past two years.
Conway told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday that he was angry that good cops were being wrongly vilified. He said he’s been considering speaking up for a long time, and that he “finally had enough” when one of his deputies expressed concern that even a justified shooting could land him in a brier patch of controversy.
“I don’t want to lose a deputy because he hesitates to protect himself or someone else,” Conway said.
Few metro Atlanta law enforcement leaders have weighed into the policing debate. Conway’s comments did not emerge in the midst of any controversial incident in Gwinnett. He said police relations there are good with the community, which is among the most diverse in the state.
But Conway argued that as police incidents have grabbed the spotlight, critics have dominated the debate, and he felt he had to make a stand.
“If (the critics) scream it loud and often enough, then add race into the mix, you effectively silence the majority of law-abiding citizens,” he said. “The loudest voices are heard until a credible voice speaks.”
Several other police chiefs contacted by the AJC echoed his sentiments.
“There is an emerging attitude in the country that all police officers, in some kind of way, are bad,” said DeKalb Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander. You cannot take those officers who have gone outside the law and “demonize the entire culture of policing.”
Dan Flynn, the Marietta police chief, doubted that the great majority of people buy into this police criticism. He believed “left-wing extremists” have “spread this police hatred.”
Most people realize, Flynn added, that the police form the “thin blue line” between society and the criminals.
Conway, who was a Boy Scout growing up in Decatur, has served as Gwinnett’s sheriff for 19 years. He said he spent several days putting together his thoughts on this. But when he began to write, the anger flowed.
“To say that I’m angry would be an understatement,” he wrote. “I’m angry that the fringe groups who started the culture of police hatred have widened the racial divide in our country by alleging that officer involved shootings stem from racism.”
When he finished, he sent the missive directly to the media, which received some of his greatest criticism.
“I’m angry that the controversy involving law enforcement officers has been further fueled by the news media, which seems intent on trying these cases in the court of public opinion through relentless media coverage and irresponsible reporting before the facts of a case are available,” he wrote.
The response from local social activists was swift and harsh. They took particular issue with one line in which Conway likened those inciting riots to “domestic terrorists with an agenda.”
“(He) misrepresents the people who have been critical,” said Mawuli Davis, an attorney representing the family of Kevin Davis, the DeKalb man who was shot and killed in his home by officers he called there. The case is expected to go before a civil grand jury, which will make recommendations to the district attorney.
Davis added that Conway’s representation of the critics “has nothing to do with calls for increased police accountability. Not at all.”
Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said, “It is hard not to feel sick reading yet another example of outright denial by a law enforcement leader in taking responsibility for very serious problems within their profession.”
Conway, for his part, told the AJC that his department does not tolerate officers who act outside the law.
Alexander, the DeKalb public safety chief, noted that many police departments are revisiting their training and tactics.
The flare-up here in the Atlanta area reflects the wide gap nationally between activists calling for police reforms and police who say they uphold the rule of law, said Dean Dabney, a Georgia State University associate professor of criminal justice and criminology.
“He’s trying to reset the narrative” to say police are “the good guys,” Dabney said of Conway. “There’s media attention on the police. The public is recording them. They are under siege.”