As protests continue nationwide and in the region, Athens Police Chief Cliff Couch shared his thoughts on the situation.
“It makes me cringe every time I see the video of George Floyd being murdered. My entire career has revolved around building law enforcement agencies that provide a high level of professionalism to citizens,” Couch said. “The officer who callously crushed a helpless man in handcuffs basically spit on everything that I and countless other law enforcement professionals strive to stand for. We’re supposed to be the good guys.”
Couch said the protests are understandable, given the killing of Floyd.
“Watching a man in uniform do something so horrible is the worst kind of irony. I’m furious, so I understand why so many others are mad too,” he said. “We need to all put that energy into focused, specific goals that move us toward a day where this type of thing doesn’t happen.”
However, he stressed that rioting and violence are not the answer.
“There are many different things that may move us in the right direction, but riots aren’t one of them. I suspect that any legitimate protesters who are pouring their souls into building a better world are probably heartbroken at the way some people have chosen to hijack their cause,” he explained. “We must remember that there is a difference between legitimate protest and self-serving exploitation and we have to act accordingly.”
There have been two protests held in Athens since the killing of Floyd — one Monday night and another Wednesday, both at the McMinn County Courthouse — and both of them have been peaceful.
Couch stated that he was very impressed by the protest that happened Monday night at the courthouse in Downtown Athens.
“Most of the participants were high-schoolers. I was encouraged to see the youth of our community take such an interest in social issues and things that matter,” he said. “I also appreciated the fact that they were mostly respectful and well behaved. I hope that they’ll follow through with whatever passion they feel for this issue by formulating specific goals, researching the issues and ultimately being involved in their government. Communities get the government they deserve and the quality of Athens’ future will be determined by just how involved this generation is willing to be in their government.”
He added he is taking extra precautions to allow citizens to utilize free speech without fear of things turning violent.
“I’ve spent my entire adult life as either a U.S. Marine or a law enforcement officer. I’ve sacrificed a great deal to ensure that people have to right to free speech. You can’t have a free society without free speech,” he said. “The Athens Police Department will do everything it can to ensure that every citizen can exercise that right. We’re all working a ton of overtime right now to help make sure that these events can take place safely and without fear of reprisal. You can expect us to keep doing so. Citizens who want to exercise their right to free speech here will find that we’ll work with them in whatever way we possibly can.”
He stated that his officers will stop any potential harm or violence should the worst case scenario happen.
“There is no excuse for opportunists to exploit the memory of George Floyd or disgrace the efforts of legitimate protesters as they pursue their own selfish goals. Legitimate protest and looting are two very different things,” he explained. “The first and foremost role of government is to ensure safety for its citizens. If anyone tries to endanger that or harm our citizens, the APD will be just as assertive about stopping them as we are about protecting free speech.”
He hopes the younger citizens who are actively voicing their concerns will learn from this situation and utilize it to proactively seek change in the future.
“I’ve been a police chief for nearly 10 years and I’ve been to countless city council meetings. One of the greatest disappointments I’ve had is realizing just how few people take the time to be involved in their government,” he said. “When people aren’t involved, it leaves a vacuum that’s easily misused. If the students I saw (Monday) night want change of any type, they have to realize it takes a lot more than going to a single demonstration on a Monday night. It takes a lot of hard, thankless work to have a quality government that truly serves its people.”
Couch emphasized that there’s more to creating change than simply attending protests.
“Speaking out is an important part of the process, but it’s not the only part. I hope the passion we’re seeing from this translates into more people running for office, learning about the needs of their community and taking action,” he said. “Protest is just the start of any real change. If Americans want a better government, they’ll have to step down out of the spectator stands and enter the arena of change. That can take a lot of forms. There are countless ways and places that people can get involved in their government and see change, but I’d love nothing more than to see young people who are concerned about law enforcement in America step forward and don a badge; to be the change they want to see.”
Couch added that creating change starts at home, in small towns.
“Several years ago, in the wake of the unrest that followed Ferguson, I felt incredibly helpless. Like that situation, it’s a huge issue that’s far beyond my ability to fix. The conclusion I finally came to is that although I can’t change the world, I can change people’s worlds,” he noted. “The wonderful thing about small towns is they’re small enough for each of us to make a difference. Those of us in Athens can’t fix the discord that’s sweeping through our country, but we can make sure that Athens is the exception. Change starts locally.”