There has been a tremendous amount of media coverage recently about a lawsuit alleging mistreatment of two of our citizens by our public safety officers during an October 2014 traffic stop. Our small city now stands under an enormous national spotlight whose brightness can be deceptively blinding when it distorts our commitment to respect, accountability and transparency. If you doubt where we stand or what we stand for in this moment of intense scrutiny, you simply don’t know Aiken.
As Aiken’s mayor and city manager – who took over almost a year after the traffic stop – let us be clear: we join every member of our City Council in unequivocally denouncing discrimination, harassment and mistreatment of our citizens, particularly by those sworn to protect us and ensure public safety. We have zero tolerance for racism, “codes of silence” and shielding of those who violate our citizens’ civil rights. Public accountability and transparency are non-negotiable pillars of our community where everyone must feel safe, protected and respected. It is sad that this incident is blurring the reality that the Aiken Department of Public Safety is filled with good and decent public servants who are there for all of us each and every day.
Concerning the October 2014 traffic stop, out of an abundance of caution and to ensure public trust during the legal proceedings and our own internal investigation, the public safety officers involved have either been reassigned from street duty or are no longer on the force.
So, what do we do now and where do we go from here? For certain, our plan of action can’t wait for a court’s decision and neither can the direction of our progress remain in indefinite limbo. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, the situation we find ourselves in presents a challenge facing municipalities of all shapes, sizes and compositions across this country – effectively protecting our communities in a way that makes everyone feel safe, that their rights are respected and that is deserving of the public’s trust.
We began by initiating a thorough and independent investigation of what happened during that October 2014 traffic stop, what was done right, wrong and what could be done better. We have hired a nationally recognized expert on police-community relations who will lead the independent review and report its findings. In addition, we reached out to the FBI and asked them to independently review the incident to bring their high level of experience and expertise to the forefront. We invited them into our house and pledged our unfettered cooperation, because that’s how we do things in Aiken.
We have created a Citizens Review Board to examine all complaints against our public safety officers. The board’s 15 members have already been appointed and reflect a well-respected and diverse cross-section of Aiken’s business community, educators, civil rights activists, former law enforcement officers and religious leaders. We are seeking input from other municipalities around the country who have created similar review bodies to find the right fit for Aiken on the way our board members will be trained, how long their terms will be and how we can guarantee that they have the full cooperation of City agencies and the entire public safety workforce during their investigations.
In addition to our formal complaint process, we will implement an anonymous telephone and online tip line for citizens to speak up, without fear or intimidation, about concerns they have regarding public safety officers. This anonymous tip line serves public safety officers, as well, who should never fear retaliation for blowing the whistle if they see things happening in the line of duty that just aren’t right.
Our City Council has already funded and we are implementing a comprehensive officer body-worn camera program that will be fully functional this month. We also have, and will continue, to hold public forums to foster open, honest dialogue among our City’s officials, police officers and community members where they can freely raise and share concerns about public safety and law enforcement in Aiken. We believe that it is important to bring our children into this conversation, so we want to strengthen our existing School Resource Officer program for the upcoming academic year. Placing public safety officers in our schools to engage our young people allows them to learn from an early age that the role of law enforcement is to keep our communities safe and that the police are there to protect them.
The City of Aiken also is increasing its community outreach to make sure our citizens are better informed about law enforcement activities and fully aware of their rights and responsibilities during traffic stops and other interactions with police. We are making statistical data on traffic stops and arrests more easily available and accessible so our citizens won’t have to wonder what our police are doing; they can simply go online and find out.
We also recognize that the better we recruit and train our officers, the more effective their policing will be. As part of the independent review, we are seeking the advice of the country’s best law enforcement agencies and training organizations to strengthen our training program so that it is comprehensive and appropriately addresses diversity, inclusion and accessibility.
Once our independent review is completed, as well as those conducted by the FBI and other entities whose input we sought to help us face this challenge, we are sure that our already ambitious action plan will grow in breadth and depth. We wholeheartedly welcome this growth because we know that without it, the community we are building for our children won’t be all that it can be. And that just wouldn’t be Aiken.
John C. Klimm