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Police chief to hate-posters: you will be prosecuted

By BETH ALSTON

AMERICUS — As the community and state try to heal after two police officers were murdered here last week on duty, Americus Police Chief Mark Scott held a news conference Friday to again thank the community for its support, but also to issue a warning to those who continually seek to divide.
First, the chief said he appreciates all the communications of support for the police department and the Georgia Southwestern State University Police Department. He said that there are counseling sessions being offered and officers are encouraged to attend. He said there were voluntary sessions, and that mandatory sessions are forthcoming. He referred to it as a “group de-briefing” with an opportunity to talk with counselors, and “work through the emotions we’ve been feeling these past two weeks.” He said that GSW is in the “same mode” and has already had counselors on hand to take care of their officers. He said the 911 dispatch center will also be brought into the fold for counseling.
“We want to be sure they can get the help that they need to work through this time,” he said. “We’ve also reached to the Lembrick family to make sure they are getting the help that they need to try deal with their grief, and there are counselors available for them if they choose to ask for it.”
He said there have been hundreds if not thousands of people who’ve tried to contact the APD to offer their support. “It’s been amazing … the community support that we’ve had during this ordeal,” he said. “People have just stepped up to be encouraging, to make sure that we know that the community is behind us.”
However, Scott said, “There’s always a handful that will take any opportunity to try to advance their platform and this time of our pain and grief is not different. We’ve had a few who’ve made a point of trying to be hateful. They’ve used social media platforms to spew their poisonous rhetoric as much as they can. They’ve attacked individuals; they’ve attacked family members of the slain officers. They have made threats against them. They have attacked our police officers and made threats against us and our families. There have been open threats against the Lembrick family and all kinds of hateful things said about them.
“I want to stand here today and I want the community to know that these hateful people do not speak for me. They do not speak for the Americus Police Department. They do not speak for the people of Americus and Sumter County. We are working with our state and federal partners to record the things that have been said, especially the things on social media. We will identify who these people are. Anyone who has posted a threat against someone … will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. They cannot hide behind some silly user name they put up. They are not anonymous. We can and we will find out who they are and they will be prosecuted.”
Scott then opened the floor for questions.
A reporter from an out of town TV station asked when Officer Nick Smarr’s body cam video would be available. The chief said that is up to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation which is handling the investigation into the officers’ shootings.
“We will not release the entire video,” he said. “We will release what we can release. It will show what occurred right up to the event. The rest of it will not be made public.”
He was also asked if there had been any arrests for hate crimes yet. “No, not at this time,” he said. “We’re still working with federal crime analysts to identify which statements rise to the level of a crime. All our citizens are protected by the First Amendment. We have freedom of speech in this country and freedom of the press and people are free to express themselves. But there’s a limit. If you are threatening someone’s life, threatening someone’s well-being or saying things that cause them undue stress and pain, then that’s illegal. You cannot use your rights to attack someone else. We’re identifying those statements that have crossed the line and then it’s just a matter of tracking down that user name and taking it back to the computer and arresting that person.”
Scott said most of the threats have been on social media, but there have a been some phone calls as well which are “easily traceable.”
“Anyone who has made a point to hurt someone in this community, that we’re sworn to protect, we’re going to protect them,” he said.
He said his department will continue to work with the GBI and FBI to find these individuals. He said the FBI and GBI both have computer crime analysts and crime analysts to help in identifying the offenders. “This is what they do,” he said, “they identify people who are using the Internet for illegal things.”
Another questioner asked if the hateful comments are racially motivated.
“No,” he said. “The vast majority of them are just hate, just hateful people. Of course, it’s hard to tell the race of someone on social media unless they post a picture of themselves. Those are easy to identify. … They’re using this platform to spit out their own racial hate; it really has nothing to do with the situation because the situation has no racial component. The suspect had no idea who was going to show up. The officers had no idea who they were going to encounter when they got there … People can take anything … and try to twist it to their agenda, and that’s what’s happening.”
The chief was asked if there’s any “outside protection” for the officers’ families or the Lembrick family.
“We are very, very visible in the neighborhood. .. He [Lembrick] will be laid to rest … in a peaceful and respectful manner, and we will make sure that happens. We will be extremely present along with all of our partners and there’s nothing that’s going to happen to disrupt that family’s grief if we have anything to say about it.”
A member of the local clergy had a question for the police chief about newspapers printing hate speech and how it affects the community.
“It absolutely does. The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. The press has a lot of leeway to print whatever they want to print. As long as it doesn’t rise to the level of threatening someone, it’s up to those media to police themselves and to try to do the right thing. The community can get with the people who advertise in those media and do whatever they need to do.”
Scott had asked a few members of the local clergy to attend the press conference and offered them to the media for questions one on one.