MARIETTA — Candidates vying to be elected to the county commission addressed diversity and community-police relations at a forum hosted by the Cobb branch of the NAACP Tuesday evening.
About 10 people turned out to attend the forum, which took place at the county government building and was also televised live.
The event was divided into two sections, one highlighting the chairman’s race and the other the contest for the District 2 commission seat. All five candidates — three for chairman and two for District 2 — are running as Republicans and will face off in the May 24 primary.
While previous debates have focused heavily on development, green space and SunTrust Park stadium, Tuesday’s was the first attempt to pin down the candidates on issues related to race and diversity.
Over the past year, several high-profile incidents, including the fatal shooting of a Smyrna man by police and the departure of another police officer following two separate racial bias inquiries, have shined a light on distrust among communities of color toward local law enforcement.
When asked explicitly whether the candidates supported Commissioner Lisa Cupid’s proposal for a citizen review board on public safety, all three chairman candidates offered a variation on “no,” or, at least, “not now.”
“I’m very reluctant to create a whole new bureaucracy,” said Mike Boyce, a Marine Corps veteran who is running for county chair. “We should consider it … but, for right now, I think we should use the agencies and institutions we have in place to try and work through those problems and if that doesn’t work then try something else.”
Incumbent Chairman Tim Lee, who has clashed with Cupid over this very issue, called the citizen review board a “strong idea that warrants measurement.”
Lee pointed out that he brought forward a proposal last year to have an outside agency review Cobb Police Department’s policies and procedures, a review that was recently contracted to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
“It’s quite possible that one of the recommendations that will come back will be … a (citizen oversight) commission, and the framework and parameters under which it will work, and I think we should utilize that recommendation to move forward,” Lee said. “But with my holistic review … hopefully we can identify some other issues that were lingering or some other issues that need to be addressed that might be missed by just putting a citizen review committee in place.”
While unveiling his proposal at a December meeting, Lee criticized Cupid for what he characterized as her lack of leadership. Cupid subsequently stormed out of the room and was found passed out shortly after, causing Deane Bonner, head of the local NAACP, to declare “war” on Cobb County. Bonner later apologized for her comment and Cupid has since lent her backing to the review process while continuing with a grievance committee she started to help citizens file and track complaints against police.
Larry Savage, a retired businessman who is also running for chairman, said the county already had a public safety committee in place.
“There are 40 or more committees in the county that are populated with appointees, and honest to goodness most of them I’ve never heard of and have no idea what they do, and so adding yet another one to do a job that somebody else could be doing … doesn’t seem like a really good approach,” Savage said.
Instead, he proposed repurposing the existing public safety committee and waiting for the results of the independent review.
“If we’re going to have a consultant’s report, let’s at least see what it says,” Savage said.
The candidates also faced questions of how to increase diversity among the county’s workforce, its police force and business community.
“The most equalizing thing there is, is economic equality,” Savage said. “The route to economic equality is to develop the kind of skills that allows one to get on (a) ladder on achievement and move up at a steady pace.”
Savage spoke of the need to increase access to education through improved transportation and educational outreach.
Lee said it was important that the leadership of the county “set the tone in terms of what’s acceptable and not acceptable.
“Diversity is something that is not only to be encouraged but sought out and promoted if possible,” Lee said. “There needs to be a conscious effort every single day to make sure we’re doing the best we can to move those issues forward.”
Boyce recalled his time in the Marine Corps during the 1970s when the armed forces and the country underwent a period of transition following the Civil Rights movement.
“We had to set the standard and those who didn’t want to meet the standard were asked to leave,” Boyce said. “In the case of the community, it’s dignity, everyone needs to be treated with dignity.”
On the subject of diversifying Cobb’s upper management, Lee and Boyce spoke broadly of creating a culture of inclusiveness, while Savage stressed the need for recruitment and training.
In the second face-off of the evening, incumbent District 2 Commissioner Bob Ott and challenger Jonathan Page, a local attorney, addressed many of the same issues.
When it came to improving diversity, civil rights and communication in the community, Page spoke of the need for a hiring strategy to ensure that the county government reflects the diversity of the community. Ott said transportation was key to creating economic opportunity for all groups in the county.
Neither candidate said they were in favor of Cupid’s proposed citizen review board.
“I’m not comfortable with immediately adding another layer,” Ott said. “I think the Neighborhood Safety Commission is a good place to start, so I don’t support creating (a citizen review board) right at this time.”
Page pointed to a recent state law that seeks to strengthen the grand jury process, specifically when it comes to investigating deaths at the hands of law enforcement.
“I believe that the grand jury process that we have is a citizen review board,” Page said. “Now whether we should go a step further and add an additional citizen review board, that needs to be carefully studied and investigated and considered.”
Speaking after the forum, Bonner, the head of Cobb NAACP, said she did not think the candidates went far enough to assuage the concerns of Cobb’s African-American community.
“When you talk about police treating all of the citizens the same, the fact is that they don’t,” Bonner said. “They really don’t. There is racial profiling. People are stopped simply because they are black and if you’re going to change the dynamics of what’s happening in Cobb County, leadership is going to have to say that.”