BACKING THE BLUE: What does it take to change the public's opinion of police

BACKING THE BLUE: What does it take to change the public's opinion of police
Support for law enforcement growing in southwest Georgia region. (Source: WALB)
Support for law enforcement growing in southwest Georgia region. (Source: WALB)
Tom Gieryic (Source: WALB)
Tom Gieryic (Source: WALB)
Chief Mark Scott (Source: WALB)
Chief Mark Scott (Source: WALB)
Officer Jody Smith and Officer Nick Smarr (Source: WALB)
Officer Jody Smith and Officer Nick Smarr (Source: WALB)

AMERICUS, GA (WALB) - Stories of officer-involved shootings and tension between officers and civilians took center stage in 2016, leaving many to question law enforcement and their use of force.

But it wasn't until tragedy struck in the southwest Georgia region for residents and police departments to see a change locally.

On Wednesday, December 7, 2016, Americus Police Officer Nicholas Smarr and Georgia Southwestern State University Officer Jody Smith were shot while responding to a domestic violence call.

Their deaths sparked a change in Americus, and arguably in the region.

That change began with a movement to show there was still support for the men and women in blue.

And that movement provided an opportunity for police to refocus their efforts to build relationships with the people they serve.

Everywhere you go in Americus, it's hard not to see a blue ribbon or a sign to show the community's support for public safety officers.

And with each hint of blue, a reminder of officers -- Jody Smith and Nicholas Smarr.

"When someone attacks law enforcement, they're not just attacking us," said Americus Police Chief Mark Scott. "They're attacking the community, they're attacking what we stand for, they're attacking people's perception of public safety. And people aren't going to stand for that."

And he's right.

According to a recent Gallup annual poll on crime, Americans' respect for police increased as the number of on-duty officers who were shot and killed was on the rise.

"You always wonder, 'What do people think about us?' We see the news reports just like everybody else, and it makes us wonder, 'What do people really think about our profession?'" said Chief Scott.

An end-of-year 2016 Gallup survey reported that three out of four Americans say they have a great deal of respect for the police in their area.

Chief Scott said as stories of police officers being ambushed and assaulted flooded the media most of last year, more people in the community began to reconsider the meaning behind the badge, especially when it happened in their own south Georgia town.

"They say, 'Oh, well that's a dangerous profession and they knew that when they put the badge on, it's part of what they do.' But then to see the cost on the community, when it actually happens, I think they understand it a lot more," he said.

And with that understanding, comes the community's willingness to vocalize their support.

At Gieryic's Automotive Repair in Albany, owner Tom Gieryic decided to create signs to encourage folks to show that they 'Back the Blue.'

The movement became a Facebook page as well.

Gieryic said, "I had a buddy of mine, I asked him about the signs.  He said, 'Tom, I support them, but I don't think I need to show them support.' And I said, 'Bobby, you're married right?' 'Yeah.' I said, 'You tell your wife you love her every morning when you leave?' 'Yeah.' 'Why? She ought to know that, right? Why do you tell her?' And he thought about it and said, 'Man, you're right. I never looked at it that way.'"

And it was that perspective that caught on.

Now, whether you're in Dougherty County, Lowndes County,  Sumter County, you're sure to see a sign.

'Back the Blue' signs are even popping up in South Carolina and other surrounding states.

It's a movement of support that Gieryic and Chief Scott hope continues.

"I want this to be the kind of department that people can openly back and be proud of, and not have to be ashamed of," Chief Scott said. "To be so much a part of the community, that people will be proud of us because of who we are and what we're doing."

Chief Scott admits that law enforcement agencies are partially responsible for the shame and lack of trust between residents and officers.

"A lot of times in our profession, we get so caught up on the crime side that we neglect the people that we need to be really working with to solve the community's problems," he said.

In a way, Chief Scott says the tragic loss of two admirable men who served their communities brought this region closer.

Their memories serve as a meaningful reminder of the importance of a relationship between the community and the men and women who risk their lives to protect them.

"We can't do this job without the public's support," Chief Scott said. "We have to be out there every day, working with people to make sure that they're with us and that they're behind us."

And from the looks of it, they are.

Gieryic said they plan to raise enough money with the sales of the signs and memorabilia to help a law enforcement agency purchase life saving equipment such as bullet proof vests.

Copyright 2017 WALB.  All rights reserved.