By Maria Saporta
During her talk to the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields did not shy away from the tough issues she faces in leading the police department.
Shields has been in her position for about six months, but she was part of the leadership team of former Police Chief George Turner, who she credited for making solid improvements to the department.
“We have to look at policing in a very different paradigm,” Shields said. “I think Atlanta is doing a lot of things right.”
Specifically, Atlanta benefits from having a strong relationship with the privately-supported Atlanta Police Foundation and the business community.
By comparison, Shields compared to Atlanta to Baltimore, a city she knows well.
“I don’t see the business community invested in Baltimore,” Shields said, adding Atlanta’s Police Foundation provides an infusion of ideas as well as additional resources to implement crime fighting tools as well as increasing investments in ways to prevent crime.
Although overall crime was down 3 percent last year, Shields said there was a 17 percent increase in homicides in 2016. “If homicides and robbery is going up, people don’t feel safe,” she said. But then she added homicides are down 33 percent so far this year as she has instituted some changes in the way she administers the department.
Shields talk also was surprisingly candid about how racial biases have impacted the relationship between the community, the police department and the judicial system.
“My number one goal is to not arrest young black males,” Shields said providing a history lesson how the criminal justice system has been racially polarizing. “During the crack epidemic, there were substance abusers. They needed help. The people they were victimizing were their families.”
Yet many of those crack addicts ended up in jail rather than receiving substance abuse counseling.
“Heroin is far more invasive,” said Shields, adding it is at least as much of problem as crack, except abusers have not been ending up in jail. “The fundamental difference is that heroin users are white.”
During the crack epidemic, Shields said: “We locked up so many black men.” It ended up damaging generations of families, who did were deprived of the presence of black men – fathers, brothers, sons, etc.
As a result, jails have become crowded – often not having the space to house the truly serious criminals – repeat offenders – who get released by the judicial system despite having long records of serious crimes, including homicide and armed robbery.
“These are violent individuals,” Shields said. “I need your help. Somehow, some way, there needs to be greater transparency with the courts,” she said. “What I have seen, the courts and the judicial system need to be changed.”
Shields applauded Gov. Nathan Deal and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed for working collaboratively on the issue.
“How are we going to make to change the space we’re in,” Shields asked rhetorically. “We have got a juvenile justice system that is ill-equipped to handle the situation.”
Both the foundation and the department are placing a great deal of spotlight on juveniles.
“The juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to handle the situation., she said, adding that both Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Police Foundation have made commitments to work on the issue. She said she didn’t know whether the state or the courts were planning their own initiative to reform the justice system. “But,” Shields said, “we have to do something.”
She ten described the At Promise Center that is scheduled to open later this month on the Westside of Atlanta – specifically in the Vine City-English Avenue communities.
“It’s going to be the APD’s outreach center,” she said of the Center, which will have numerous community partners, such as Chris180, Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers-Big Sisters. “We will do triage.”
In other words, they will try to treat the root causes of juveniles before they end up getting lost in the criminal justice center, and even work with the entire family to better understand the gaps and how to fill them.
That effort is being combined with an effort to have officers live in the community and become integrally involved in helping improve the area’s problems.
Shields said she is working to “help our police department so they don’t use excessive force.” Then she referenced the disconnect between the police departments and communities around the country.
“There’s a history of policing that is awful,” she acknowledged. “If I can understand the space you are in, I can navigate where we need to go.”
Rotarian David Lewis asked Shields what she would tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been advocating a policy of jailing drug offenders without making a distinction of whether they need substance abuse treatment or whether they are big-time drug dealers.
“Gov. Deal has been such a breath of fresh air. It’s a pleasure working with Gov. Deal,” she said. “Sessions reminds me of what I described during the crack era – where jail is the answer. Jail is cost-prohibitive… It’s very concerning what Mr. Sessions is putting forward.”
Looking to real challenges going forward, Atlanta will need to continue trying to hire more police officers. Given the city’s population is growing and becoming more attractive to new economic investment, said Atlanta will need to hire more officers in its attempt to make it one of the safest large cities in the country, if not the safest.
But recruiting officers is challenges. Prospects have the choice to work in jobs with higher salaries, pensions, healthcare without the risks police officers face on a daily basis.
When asked about the candidates running for mayor, Shields said: “I love this city. Regardless of who is mayor and who is (police) chief, I live here. I consider myself so fortunate to be here.”
Shields received a standing ovation – which is quite rare at Rotary.