Systemic Racism Persists In ‘Liberal’ Georgia Town Through Police Action

A new documentary from CBSN Originals reveals the stark racial divide in a small town, about 30 minutes east of Atlanta and how residents deal with those realities.

“Welcome To Pine Lake” tells the story of a town which is promoted as a liberal center in an otherwise conservative political landscape. Its police chief, municipal judge and court solicitor are all African-American women. It was a solid backer of Stacey Abrams’ 2018 gubernatorial run, and has had many LGBTQ city council members, according to CBS News.

But there is evidence of systemic racism shown initially by the way traffic tickets are written on a particular street there known as Rockbridge Road.  A majority of the violations are written to Black drivers, court documents show, who come from the surrounding area.

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“It is true that the majority of tickets are given to people of color,” Mayor Melanie Hammet told CBS News in an interview. “The demographic reality is that a majority of those driving through Pine Lake are people of color.”

But the number of Black drivers ticketed actually comes from that municipality’s choice to place more police patrols on that particular roadway.

“It is an ATM machine,” documentarian Elisa Gambino, who began shooting in 2018, said. “In the film, the mayor states that traffic pays for approximately 100% of the police department.”

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Officers in Pine Lake gave out 2,807 traffic tickets between 2017 and 2019. About 88 percent of them went to Black drivers, CBS News reported. That means the Pine Lake courthouse has a large number of Black people there trying to settle their cases, despite the fact that the town is mostly white. It’s something noticeable to Police Chief Sarai Y’hudah-Green.

“The optics kinda suck for me sometimes,” Green said, “but I have confidence in our officers and their ethics.”

An investigation done in 1999 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and local station WSB-TV found that Pine Lake wrote more tickets than any other city in the state over the prior ten years, peaking around 1998 and 1999. At that time the $830,000 in revenue financed about three quarters of the city’s budget.

“God forbid if you had to come through Pine Lake and had to go through Stone Mountain ’cause you’ll get a ticket in Pine Lake and get harassed like crazy and get locked up in Stone Mountain,” said Quinton Wilson, a Black resident of De Kalb County and remembers his experience dealing with Pine Lake cops as a teenager. “It always happened like that so we always tried to avoid this area.”

Since then the police force in Pine Lake has seen a reduction of 75 percent, but although many feel things have changed, others disagree. 

“There’s not much money coming in from the police department, so of course they’re going to pull over everybody and try to get as much money as they can,” said Kent Morris, a barber whose job was on Rockbridge Road. “They have to do that to meet their quota.”

Green, however, denies there’s any quota police need to fill and says the $211,000 revenue is far less than what it was for the city two decades ago.

Gambino says that the tickets are being given out for “crimes of poverty,” mostly for expired tags and to people who are not threats to public safety.

“As long as the city council does not fund the police adequately,” she said, “the city will continue extracting money through taxation by citation on the backs of those who do not live in Pine Lake. That is why the stigma remains, a stigma rooted in reality for many.”

“Welcome To Pine Lake” is streaming now on CBSNews.com. It premieres on CBSN on Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. EDT.


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