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December 2021

Educate Yourself on How We do our Work as Police Officers. . . then Talk with the Naysayers

Educate Yourself on How We do our Work as Police Officers. . . then Talk with the Naysayers

“Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes.
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse,
Walk a mile in my shoes.“

Sung by Elvis Presley, song by Joe South

How many Athens citizens would be willing to walk a mile in the shoes of our heroes in blue?  Consider just two local police stories from November 2021:

  • At 9:20 p.m., Jackson County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call from a homeowner who wanted a non-resident out of the home.  When two deputies arrived, a woman at the front door pulled out a gun and pointed it at the deputies.  Though the deputies commanded the woman to drop the gun, she instead opened fire striking Deputy Lena Marshall, who died in the hospital three days later.  Deputy Marshall (49) left three children behind.
  • Athens-Clarke County Police arrested 13 suspects in an ongoing FBI-supported gang bust called Operation Tourniquet that began in May, 2021.  Police said the suspects are drug traffickers and violent offenders with ties to metro Atlanta.  To date, 37 suspects have been arrested along with over $1 million in cash; 60 firearms; one land mine; cocaine worth $413,000; $150,000 of fentanyl, and several other drugs.

We live in a dangerous world.  Thank God our local men and women in blue are there to keep our neighborhoods and families safe.

The "Defund the Police" Movement:
A Flawed & Dangerous Public Policy

Unbelievably, cities like Buffalo, New York City, Portland, and Minneapolis have drastically cut their police departments’ budgets — to defund the police.  It’s a crazy idea based on the myth that police are somehow targeting people of color.  Yes, there are some bad apples in law enforcement, but they are very rare.  The problem American cities face is not police misconduct but crime: gang violence, drive-by shootings, illegal drug trafficking, and robberies.

Cops enter the profession as young men and women — they want to serve, they have ideals, they want to make a difference in their communities.  Cops risk everything — their job, their family, their reputations, and their freedom.  Condemning cops, who are trying to do the right thing — as thugs or racists — can only lead to disastrous results.

Sure, groups like BLM claim to protect black lives, but look at the effect of what they advocate.  By removing police from high crime neighborhoods, they actually increase the danger to black lives — and all lives living in those high-crime areas.

Fortunately, the tide is turning as the catastrophic effect of police defunding is felt.  In June, Oakland’s city commissioners cut their police force’s budget by $17 million.  But now, six months later, Democrat Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaff, appeared on TV, saying, “The defund the police movement is hurting cities, we need more police.”

Seeing a big surge in Oakland violence and crimes, such as the so-called smash and grab robberies and the killing of a police officer, Mayor Schaff said, “There is nothing progressive about unbridled gun violence” and she’s now fighting her city commissioners to fully restore Oakland’s police funding to stop the wave of crime and violence.

The Need for Citizens to Better Understand Police Work

OK, so what’s the Athens-Clarke County answer to backing our police and stopping the “defund the police” movement from jeopardizing our safety?

Well, Sergeant Jerry Johnson, a police/community instructor and cop-on-the-street in the ACC police department has an answer:

Walk a mile in a police officer’s shoes by educating yourself on how your local ACC police department operates.  Only then will you be prepared to knowledgeably speak out on behalf of our police.

Sergeant Jerry’s “get educated” message was the subject of a talk he gave at a recent “Coffee for Cops” meeting at Young Harris Methodist Church on Prince Street.  I attended this event and later worked with Sergeant Jerry to write this interview story.

He covers a wide range of topics here from “community policing” and preventing school violence. . . to cell phone recording of police-in-action and the free classes available for Athens citizens to learn how the ACCPD does its work.

The Wisdom of "Community Policing"

Dan Baker, Editor, The Watch Dawgs: Sergeant Jerry, to begin, can you tell us a bit about your background?

Sergeant Jerry Johnson: Sure, Dan.  I’ve been with the ACC police department almost 15 years.  Actually, this is a second career for me.  Most of my background is in sales and retail: I worked a long time in the private sector for Enterprise Rent a Car.

And, in a way, working at Enterprise Rent a Car prepared me for my police work.  At Enterprise I specialized in car rentals; today I specialize in reporting and preventing car accidents. :- )

Actually, I think a sales background is perfect for engaging with the citizens you serve.

Yes, citizen engagement is absolutely key.  In the law enforcement world, we call that community policing, a practice that’s been active here in Athens for twenty or more years.  In fact, when I started with the department, that’s all we talked about.

Community policing is about officers getting out of the car to talk to people, and getting to know the folks in their specific zone or neighborhood.

I tell my guys: “You need to know the folks who own stores in Triangle Plaza.  Pay a visit to manager of the Family Dollar Store down on Winterville Road.  Also go down and meet the owners of the RaceTrak on Oconee Street.  Let them see that there’s a bit more to you than just that uniform.”

Community policing

Community policing is powerful because once you build those relationships, my job as a police officer gets easier, especially when it comes to enforcing laws.  Because we do enforce laws and local ordinances.  And we’re also tasked with upholding the Constitution of the United States — and the Constitution of the State of Georgia.

But besides being police officers, we are also members of this community.  I’ve lived here in Athens since 2004.  It’s my home.  Also, my wife was born and raised here.  Either way, I’ve been in and around Athens for 25 years.

Now if I can’t go out and engage with the folks I live with in Athens, that makes me less of a police officer.  That’s my personal philosophy.

I was stationed at a U.S.  Naval Base in Sasebo City, Japan in the early 80s.  And I was one of a few Americans there who chose to live in an apartment in the Japanese community. 

And soon after moving to that apartment, the local policeman who watched over my neighborhood made arrangements to meet me there, bringing along with him an English interpreter.  We sat down for 20-minutes, enough time for the policeman to get to know me.  And he also explained the rules of the neighborhood, such as not to drive my car on a certain narrow street from 3 to 5 PM when kids were walking home from school. 

So this is an international example of community policing.

Dan, it is a good example, but community policing is not always an easy thing to do.  Officers are a bit like athletes: they are very self-aware people.  Many police are Marine and Army veterans — and regardless — all officers have gone through rigorous physical training and have a high level of self-discipline.  They are also trained to observe and think fast on their feet, so by nature, they are not overly talkative.

But today, officers realize that striking up conversations with citizens is a skill that’s key to their professional success.

My wife calls me a social butterfly.  I don’t know where she got that idea, but she even says one of my twin boys inherited my social butterfly “wings”.

An Example of How Community Policing Works in Athens

Neighborhood that is a community

Traditionally with police work, you answer your call for service and take a report, pass it along, and go to your next call.  Efficient?  Yes.  But where’s the long term answer to the solution?

That’s where community policing comes in.  Let me show you how we put that into practice.

My team of four officers works around Triangle Plaza in East Athens.  And I’ve personally been in and around that area for 7 or 8 years of my almost 15 years in the department.

In Triangle Plaza these days, we are not just concerned with crime issues there, but also quality of life.  For instance, at Arch and Gressom Street, there’s trash on that intersection and there are no real houses there.  Yet still, you find people walking that vicinity all hours of the night.

Maybe you’ve heard of the “Broken Window” theory: if a place looks like it’s rundown and not well taken care of, it’s going to invite crime.  But if people clean that area up a bit, you are less likely to have crime.

So what do we do?  Well, we find out who the property owner is and get them involved.

Apartment needs cleanup

We say: “It would great if you could clean up your property — make it more appealing — because that will discourage crime.  Meanwhile the ACC police will do its part to strengthen the enforcement of ordinances and parking laws in the area.”

So you see, progress is best made through a kind of partnership.  Both parties — the police officer and the citizen have expectations.  Citizens rightly expect police officers to take care of issues and solve crimes.  But also, police expect citizens to assist them on the quality of life side.

How Effective is Community Policing in Athens-Clarke?

How effective do you feel the ACC Police Department is in actually implementing community-based policing?

Well, being with the department 15 years, I know the ACC police department has always taken community-oriented-policing to heart.  It’s working.  In fact, it’s one reason I’ve stayed with the department as long as I have.

To be honest, when I first became a policeman, I had no intention of being with the department for 10 years.  Back then, the economy was tanking, and I had a wife and three kids at home.  I needed to do whatever I could to take care of my family.  Of course, I also have some close family who are in law enforcement, so their advice also influenced me to stay on.

And it’s interesting: when you engage with the community and show them you care, people remember that and the favor is returned in added respect and good will.

Believe it or not, I’ve had guys actually thank me for arresting them!  Now I first found that kind of crazy, so I asked one of those guys why he thanked me.  And he said, “Well, Sergeant Johnson, you treated me with respect.  You cared about me.  You didn’t treat me like I was nothing.”

And that leads me into another important goal of our ACC police training, what we call, “fair and impartial policing”.

Fair and Impartial Policing — Managing Biases

A few years ago, I went to North Carolina to attend a police course on “fair and impartial policing” and the idea was to take that knowledge back to the officers in the ACC police force.

When I got back to Athens, little did I know that I’d end up being the lead instructor in the department.  When then-Sergeant Williams got elected to Sheriff, I ended up taking his spot, so I now teach on a regular basis.

Fair and impartial policing is about training officers to recognize their biases — and to manage those biases.  Now when you act on your biases unconsciously, that’s what we call “implicit bias”.  So we teach officers to recognize those implicit biases and make sure those biases don’t influence their job — because if biases do affect your job, that’s unfair, unsafe, and unjust.

Now everybody has biases.  They grow out of your life experiences — where you grew up, how you grew up, and who you grew up around.

And this “fair and impartial” training actually allowed me to discover my own personal biases.

I don’t mind sharing this.  God has really blessed my family — in more ways than one.  My parents were alcoholics.  More specifically my mother.  Now several years after I joined the ACC police force I got assigned downtown for six months.  And I wondered why those drunks wandering around town bothered me so much.  But it wasn’t until I took this class that I realized I had biases against drunk people — you know, the ones who are sloppy drunk.

But I’ve learned how to manage that bias and not let it affect my job.

Cell Phone Cameras Filming Police Work

As I think about modern police-work, I suppose one of the biggest changes is that cell phone cameras are everywhere, and they are a bit distracting when you’re doing your police work.

Yes, people these days feel the need to report everything they see.  I’m not sure what the fascination is: to be the “first reporter” on the scene or to “get the action”.  Regardless, they have a right to record whatever they wish.  The problem is: sometimes the cell phone recorders step in too close and unknowingly create a more dangerous situation.

Police handcuffing suspect

For example, people walking the streets are naturally alarmed when they see the police putting handcuffs on a person.  But what the innocent bystander doesn’t know is that the person being arrested is a suspect and is believed to be carrying a gun.  The suspect was handcuffed because they matched a description, and police must often act based on what they see and the scarce information they have at the time.

Now from personal experience when I see a bystander with a cell phone camera coming too close, I say, “You’re fine.  Just stay where you are.  I’ll come talk to you in a few minutes.”

Then after the situation has cooled and is under control, I’ll go over and talk to that person and explain why we did what we did.  And they say, “Oh, okay.  Now I understand.”

So having conversations with people is the secret.  But there’s not always the opportunity to talk with those folks right away because it’s a dangerous situation — not just for the officers and suspect, but also for bystanders on the scene.

We train our officers to have balance and to not take the recording of their police work personally.

The attitude we instill is, “You can record me all day long.  You can do that.  But also understand that it must not deter me from doing my job.”

Bottom line: cell phone cameras are not an issue as long as there’s better understanding.  First, we need to train officers to know the average citizen has a right to record these events.  And second, citizens need to back away a bit because the police are trying to stop violence and keep everybody safe in a hot situation.

Fights & Gang Activity in our Public Schools

Some fights between gangs recently broke out in Cedar Shoals High School causing the school to go into lockdown.  And I understand some school teachers got beat up trying to pull kids apart.  What can folks in the communities do to help prevent those situations?

I understand that day they went from one fight to another fight at Cedar Shoals.  Then Central High School also had a couple of fights.

The administration did the best they could do and wisely locked everything down to get the fighting under control.

Now the best thing we can do as a community to prevent these incidents is to talk to as many young people as we can about the dangers of gang life.

Gang in shadows

One of the classes I teach is called GREAT or Gang Resistance Education And Training, which focuses on the age group of 6th grade to 7th grade.  That pretty much is your target area for gang member recruitment.

The peer pressure to join gangs is huge and it’s awful.  The aim of our training however is to apply opposite peer pressure to push kids in the right direction.  So we both educate families about gang life and teach kids the pitfalls of joining a gang.

Unfortunately, for most of the kids in this sort of trouble, there’s no structure in the home.

The Home is Where a Kid Learns to be a Law-Abiding Citizen

We used to say, kids from “broken homes”, though I’m not sure people use that term anymore.

Actually I was searching for a nice way to say that.

Basically, the home is where it all starts.  I’m not saying my home is perfect.  But the home is the starting point.

I have 4 kids: 3 boys and a daughter.  My oldest son is married and is doing his own thing.  But I have 18 year old twins who soon will be out of the house.  And I also have a 14 year old daughter.

We always had conversations with our kids — simple conversations with them about many things, including the pros and cons of gang life.  Trouble is, once young people get caught up in that kind of life, it’s hard for them to get out of it.

The ideal solution is to fix the issue going on in the home, and administer the discipline that’s needed there.  And I’m not talking about corporal discipline — though that’s part of it.  It’s mostly about having conversations with kids about what’s right and what’s wrong.  It’s about explaining to kids they can’t always have things their own way.

If we have these strong conversations with our kids, then that will help with some of the discipline issues we have.  We’re not going to solve them all.  But it will help some of them.

My wife is a school counselor.  Now she can’t tell me everything that goes on at school, but she can tell me enough.  Some of the issues these kids have when they leave school will blow your mind.

Policeman honored by son

Personally, I was raised in a 3-room house in Southwest Georgia.  My mama would tell me, “Just do better than me.” And that simple phrase, “Just do better than me” had a powerful influence on me.  And those words instilled some fear in me — not fear of punishment — but fear of disappointing her.

So I was lucky my Dad and Mom taught me some life lessons in the home.

Yet when I say “home”, that’s not really confined to the four walls of a house.  Home should also extend into the neighborhood.  When I was growing up, it was the neighborhood that raised us.  If someone caught me in trouble, I heard about it when I got home.

Volunteer Work: The Clarke-County Mentor Program

I understand there’s a mentoring program in ACC that helps kids on an individual level.  What’s that about?

Well, that’s another hat I wear.  I’m on of the board of directors for the Clarke County Mentor Program.

Sad to say that Covid-19 slowed up that program a lot.  So our goal is to get that program back as fast as we can.

In mentoring, I believe it’s important to get local citizens involved — folks who will be here for the long haul.

Yes, UGA students sometimes come by and volunteer to be mentors.  That’s all well and good.  I’m not knocking UGA.  But a UGA student is there for 4 years and that’s it.  Most of them will get a good job — hopefully they will stay local in our community — but they often get a job elsewhere.  The trouble is: after 4 years, a new mentor is needed.

Mentoring is basically about talking to a young person, whether it’s elementary, middle, or high school.  They match you up: you meet the school counselor, and they identity the kids who may benefit from having a mentor.

Acc mentoring program

Well I was mentoring one young man, and a counselor in Winterville who knew me before, called to say, “Officer Johnson, I’ve got another kid who could really benefit from having a mentor.  I just can’t find a match.  Are you interested?”

Well, I hesitated because I had my hands full already as a mentor, but I said, “Yes, I’ll give it a shot, but why me?”

And she said something that kind of stuck with me: “His new family specifically asked for an African-American man because of what the boy had been taught already.”  So I accepted and it’s been great ever since.

"Defund the Police" Threats are Hurting
our Local Police Staffing

It’s no secret that there’s national controversy over policing in this country.  A few highly-publicized cases of police abuse have been magnified way out of proportion. 

Locally, one ACC commissioner actually proposed that the number of police in Athens be cut in half over a series of years.  Fortunately, her proposal was rejected. 

Now widespread talk about defunding police is hurting the morale of police departments in lots of cities, including Athens.  I’ve heard reports that the number of ACC officers on the force is down by 40 or 50.  What’s your assessment?

Dan, I would say police are leaving for different reasons.  Some are leaving not just ACC but law enforcement altogether.  Some are getting out because of the current climate.

It’s all because of different ideas and philosophies about how police should police.  And these ideas come from people who have never had the job and never put a badge on.  And yet you’re telling me how to do this?

This was at one time considered an honorable profession.  It’s changed over my 15 years in policing.  It’s way different than when I first started.

Well, I assure you, policing is STILL an honorable profession and most Athens citizens support our police 100%.  One of the reasons The Watch Dawgs are reaching out to policemen like yourself is to learn your side of the story so we can counter some of the fake news out there. 

Educating Athens Citizens on How Police Do Their Work

So what’s your advice for Athens citizens who support the police and want to build back the morale of the ACCPD?

Well, I think the answer is a two-step process.  First, educate yourself about how we do our job as police officers, then have a talk with the naysayers.

What I just discussed with you, Dan, are some of the basics of what we do in the department.  Fortunately, the ACCPD runs a few valuable forums and classes to get citizens’ knowledge up to speed at a much deeper level.  Athens citizens need to start taking advantage of these free education sessions, such as our:

  • Coffee with Cops presentations.  These are one hour sessions where an officer gives a short talk and answers questions.  Held about every two months.
  • Fair and Impartial Policing Training Course — This is a one-day (8-hour) class that citizens can attend for free.  The class is held every 3 months or so.
  • The Civilian Police Academy — This program meets one night a week for 12 weeks and gives you a full picture of your police department’s operations.  You can even ride around with an officer, if you choose to do so.  The next classes start in January.  For more details, here’s the academy’s website.
Acc citizen training session

Now once you’ve educating yourself on what we do as police officers, you’ll have confidence to speak out and correct the misinformation that’s out there.

So when you sit with folks and they become a naysayer, you need to say, “Hold on a second, let me talk to you about how things really are.”

Let’s face it, a lot of people simply see what’s on television or social media and draw their own conclusions.  And what they see is not the full picture.

When you sit down with those naysayers, you need to have those tough conversations — and try to change those individuals’ minds.

Citizen Support & Creative Solutions:
The Answer to Solving Long Term Crime Problems

Sergeant Jerry, thanks for this wonderful backgrounder.  You’ve definitely got me excited about attending some of the upcoming classes.  Policing in Athens is an awesome responsibility.  We thank you and all your fellow officers for all you do for our community.

Dan, I appreciate the opportunity to get the word out to Athens citizens.

I’ll end up by saying your department, our department, is one that is well ahead of others in our area.  I’ve had a chance to see a lot of the departments in the State of Georgia.  But here in Athens we’ve always had concepts of community policing in place for more than 20 years.

Sergeant jerry johnson large portrait

Your whole umbrella of policing can’t be built around just arresting people: we can’t arrest our way out of problems.  These are long term problems that need long term solutions.  So we have to be creative.  We have to think outside the box.

What we most need, I think, is support from the community.

But let me say this about Athens-Clarke County.  The protests in 2020, even though we were going through so much (as a Nation) at that time, I was never so proud to be a police officer.

The reason is: I saw all those local citizens line up and support us.  For about an hour I watched, and person after person kept coming up.  I still get thanked on a daily basis.  So a large majority of Athens-Clarke citizens support us.

But going back to what citizens can do.  The ones who support what we do — the large majority of them — open your mouth.  Talk about what we do.  Because the small group of naysayers will talk all day long.

Copyright 2021 The Watch Dawgs

Jerry Johnson

Jerry Johnson

Sergeant Jerry Johnson started his law enforcement career when he joined the Athens-Clarke County Police Department in 2007.  He is currently assigned as the Community Oriented Policing-Special Operations Unit Supervisor.

His other police responsibilities include being a: Georgia P.O.S.T. (Peace Officer Standards and Training Council) Instructor, Honor Guard Team Commander, and member of the department’s Unmanned Aerial Systems (a.k.a.  Drones) Unit.  He is a fully certified Commercial Drone Pilot.

Sergeant Jerry’s and his wife Veronica are blessed with four children and four grandchildren.  In local community work, he serves as Deacon and Vice-Chair of the Deacon Ministry at Thankful Baptist Church, Stephens, GA (Oglethorpe County).  He is also a current Board Member and Vice-Chair of the Executive Committee for the Clarke County Mentor Program.

Sergeant Jerry holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Columbus State University, Columbus, GA.

Dan Baker

Dan Baker

Dan Baker is editor of The Watch Dawgs and has been an independent market analyst/journalist in the telecom industry for 25 years.

He operates his own “boutique” research firm, Technology Research Institute, and edits his Black Swan Telecom Journal.  His current areas of telecom specialty include analytics/AI systems, fraud and identity theft, consumer protection from phone scams/robocalling, and connectivity/IoT solutions in Asia Pacific.

Dan has lived in Athens since 2016 and originally hails from Massachusetts where he learned his trade.  He also served for 9 years in the U.S.  Navy’s Pacific Fleet.  With a Bachelor Liberal Arts degree from Notre Dame, he’s not quite sure who to cheer for when the Fightin’ Irish come to Dooley Field.

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