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Atlanta must continue its quest to be a leader in police reform

Maria Saporta

By Maria Saporta

“She took one for the team.”

That’s the way Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, described the Saturday resignation of Erika Shields as Atlanta’s police chief.

It’s a sad time for Atlanta. The killing of Rayshard Brooks Friday night at a Wendy’s on University Avenue could have been avoided had police officers involved used restraint and sought alternatives to the use of force.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields went downtown to speak to reporters and protestors on Friday, May 29. (Phot by Kelly Jordan)

Officers of the Atlanta Police Department, are trained on how to de-escalate a confrontation to prevent a possible loss of life. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened Friday night.

In less than 24 hours after the shooting of Brooks, Shields submitted her resignation to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who accepted it on the spot.

“I am fortunate to have been able to serve the city for 25 years and wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Shields wrote me in a text Sunday afternoon.

Sadly, it’s the unforgiving environment we’re in. Atlanta is losing a calming police chief who has been implementing the very reforms protestors are rightfully demanding of police departments throughout America.

“Erika has been a great chief – she’s done a lot for this city and the police department,” Wilkinson said during a Sunday interview. “Although I hate that Erika is leaving, Rodney will be in lockstep with everything we’ve been doing.”

Wilkinson was speaking of Rodney Bryant, the deputy police chief under Shields, who is now serving in as the interim police chief.

Bryant will follow the leadership of Shields and of former police chief George Turner, who started instituting reforms within the Atlanta Police Department dating back to 2014 – following the recommendations of then President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Out of the 18,000 police departments in the country, Atlanta was among an elite 15 to be cited as a model by the Obama administration.

Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, during an interview on June 11 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Shields built upon Turner’s legacy – showing her true spirit by bravely going to the middle of demonstrations on May 29 to listen and comfort protesters, a move that brought her national recognition.

So, what has Atlanta done to enact reforms?

For starters, the Atlanta police has built a department that mirrors the city’s population. Today more than 60 percent of its officers are minorities.

Second, Atlanta has been working hard to get more police officers to live in the city and become an integral part of the communities they serve. Five years ago, 15 percent of the police force lived in Atlanta. Today, it’s 22 percent – about 350 officers. The goal is to entice at least another 150 officers to move to the city – a move that would foster more community policing.

Police officers also have become mentors to young people, another recommendation of 21st Century policing. In 2017, Atlanta opened the At-Promise center, where officers can young people who have gotten in trouble with the law and give them alternative to juvenile detention.

At-Promise provides wrap-around services in partnership with dozens of local nonprofits to determine the underlying issues of the youth and their families to get them back on track.

At Promise

APD Chief Erika Shields at ribbon-cutting of At Promise Center in August 2017 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Since opening, the At-Promise center in English Avenue has served 1,500 kids, and recidivism has only been 4 percent. Also, 92 percent have received their GED or a high school diploma, and 89 percent have gotten a job. At least two more At-Promise centers are being developed in other parts of the city.

“We are really onto something,” Wilkinson said. “At-Promise is an absolute game changer for our kids and the community. But it’s also a gamechanger for the culture of our police department. Atlanta has already embraced the idea of building community trust and community relationships – starting with young people.”

Still, now is a “healthy time and opportunity” to review police tactics and reform including use of force, Wilkinson said.

“What this climate of protest shows us is that our work is far from done,” Wilkinson said. “Therefore, we are doubling down. We need a police chief who will continue this momentum of police reform – seen through the lens of 21st Century policing.”

The Atlanta Police Foundation already has offered to help Mayor Bottoms conduct a national search to “find the best police chief to lead us forward.”

Russ Hardin, James Quincey Mayor Bottoms

Woodruff Foundation’s Russ Hardin stands with Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms at Atlanta Police Foundation’s Crime is Toast breakfast in October 2018 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Meanwhile, Wilkinson is worried about the state of morale within the ranks of the police department. Officers are facing the added stress of working extra-long hours during this period of turmoil as they’ve gone from being first-responder heroes to bullies in the span of less than two months.

“We understand that eight officers have resigned over the last two weeks,” said Wilkinson, who asked rhetorically: “Why would you want to be a police officer right now?”

Still, Atlanta can’t lose sight of its goal to be the safest large city in the United States. When the Atlanta Police Foundation was launched in 2003, Atlanta was listed as the second most dangerous city in the country.

Since then, APF has become the most robust police foundation in the nation – raising $44 million in just the past 18 months.

“No other police foundation in the country has raised that kind of money,” Wilkinson said. “But we shouldn’t rest on our laurels. We have to listen. And with

21st Century policing, we have to make sure there’s a culture of empathy and community service within our police force.”

The work is not done.

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Maria Saporta
Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    David Edwards June 16, 2020 10:00 am

    The efforts by APD and the Police Foundation over the past several years are laudable, and I don’t doubt that they have achieved tangible results. However, they don’t address the root causes of the problem: we are over policed in this city and the police we have are far too militarized. This is both a national and local problem, and until we come to grips with it, we will continue to repeat the patterns of violence that have become far too familiar. This is not a policies and training issue, it is a failure to adapt our police departments to the realities we now face.

    In 1989, Atlanta’s Part One crime rate – which includes all violent and serious property crimes – was 17,903 per 100,000 residents. In 2018, there were only 4,463 crimes per 100,000 residents, a 74% reduction. Embedded within those numbers is an 82% decline in the rate of violent crime. To put it in more stark perspective, in 1989 there were 246 homicides in the city; last year, there were 88.

    Despite this massive reduction in crime, we have continued to increase the number of police officers in the city. Since 1989, Part One crimes per uniformed officer has dropped from 52 to 14. In case you think that the decrease in crime can be attributed to the increase police presence, there is no evidence for that. Crime is down nationally, in almost every jurisdiction regardless of police resourcing or policing strategies. Although sociologists have struggled to explain what exactly has caused this massive reduction in crime, there is broad consensus that policing has had little if anything to do with it. The fact is, the more police you have, the more crime you have.

    In East Lake, for example, crime is down by over 90% since the revitalization work began there 20 years ago. It was the transformation of a deeply distressed neighborhood into a thriving, healthy one that should be credited for that decline, not policing. Our best strategy for improving public safety conditions in the city is to replicate that transformation work in the remaining distressed neighborhoods in the city.

    To give you a sense of what that would take, if we reduced the general fund police budget in half, we could service $1.5 billion in bonds to make the types of capital investments we made in East Lake, and are currently making in Grove Park, in the remaining 10 or so distressed neighborhoods in Atlanta. By implementing those investments under the leadership and guidance of the residents of those neighborhoods, we could prevent displacement and ensure long-term accessibility to those neighborhoods for low income families. We could reactivate large swathes of abandoned property for new housing, thus reducing pressures on housing affordability across the city, provide the conditions necessary for schools to perform at a high level, all while ensuring the future economic mobility of our most disadvantaged children.

    While reducing the police force by 50% might seem draconian, it would simply return us to a Part One crime per officer ratio that we last saw in 2007, hardly a year people remember for out of control crime. It would put us at a police/capita levels currently seen in cities like San Antonio, Sacramento, and San Jose.

    Although much more that right-sizing the police force is needed to align policing with the racial justice goals our city needs to embrace, it is a necessary component of any such plan. I propose that we establish a commission of civic and business leaders to develop a transformation plan for the city that looks at how we can fundamentally address the root causes of the racial injustice that is endemic to our city. It’s goal should be to reconstitute our approach to policing while creating a plan for making transformational investments in neighborhoods that have been ignored for far too long.

    Bryan Stevenson spoke at the Purpose Built Communities conference in Atlanta last year and said that “our work will be done when our neighborhoods are no longer expressions of injustice”. Now is the time to take up that challenge. Atlanta can lead the way.

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    Holly Carlisle June 16, 2020 11:58 am

    Weed out the undesirables, and then beef up (not reduce) the police force to protect the African American community. Should have kept Shields and dumped Keisha – who let protesters destroy downtown (and Wendy’s Sat night) – she’s too busy auditioning for Joe.

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    pcampbell June 16, 2020 12:08 pm

    While I agree with much of what David Edwards says above, I do not believe that East Lake is a prime example of anything. East Lake’s revitalization did nothing to improve the lives of most of those living in the community. Since my grandmother, Mary Ola Vaughn was the long time president of the Hi-Rise and was in constant contact with Ms. Davis, who was president of the low rise for a number of years, I attempted to keep up with what was goin on out there after my grandmother went into a nursing home. Most were moved out and who knows where they landed, many, I suspect, are homeless. But the article particularily, the statement that police are trained to deesculate situations, and they failed, is inaccurate. That is exactly what the police officers attempted to do, however the suspect made the decision and overpowered the officers..

    This officer did exactly what he was trained to do. I have listened to seasonede police officers I know as well as those who have called in to radio shows and they agree, though an unpopular choice, it is one that sometimes has to be made and is taught to make according to his training. However he has been made a scapegoat and many officers in Atlanta, are now second guessing his/her decision to become an officer.

    Chief Shields was well respected among her collegues. She was seen as competent and fair – until – she sided with the Mayor two weeks ago on arresting her officers and firing them, after them being told not to allow the type of lawlessness that happened on that Friday night. We heard her on the news, you caught us off guard, but arrest will be made, she said. But at the first sign of a disagreement, the police are seen as the bad guy, forget the people did not follow the orders of the police. Forget the fact that the police was almost drug by this car, etc. This time she could not bring herself to do the same thing, knowing the training and expectations of her officers. Knowing, that had these officers did anything else, as some are saying, let him go, take him home, etc,(and God forbid, something would have happened as a result him “being let go” or not attempting to chase him and retrieve the taser, like someone hitting him with their car, or even after him getting the taser, taking it home and putting it on the dresser and a kid getting a hold of i t – that officer would still be in trouble, likely fired and possibly criiminally charged, because after all, it is an election year for Paul Howard.

    What happened to this man is unfortunate.His children no longer have a father, his wife no longer has a husband, his other relatives too will surely miss him. But what NO ONE wants to talk about is the over abundance of ill choices he made on that day! This could have been a teachable moment for many children who are already familiar with the criminal justice system, but not now! In any other situation or circumstance, if one drives under the influence of alcohol, resists arrest, grabs a police officers taser, runs and turns to use the taser on the officer certain actions and responses from the police are to be expected.

    Stop throwing the very people you call when you are in trouble or need help, stop throwing them under the bus everytime things don’t go the way you THINK they should because none of you were there with a deranged drunk, who had fought with TWO police officers – who probably didn’t go all in on him for fear of the public perception – and then run off with their taser and turned to use it on one of them. NONE of you know for certainty that you would not have done the same thing this officer did. As the sister of three deceased brothers, two who had run ins with the law and the current mother of 4 adult children, three of them males, I know that there are Good Policers and Bad Police Officers. Some care and some are just needing a check. But when you get an officer who follows the RULE book and is still criminalized and spit in the face for doing his job, I cannot go along with that. George Floyd and many before you, I pray that laws are passed to protect those like you, but in this case, that officer, those officers, in my opinion, were doing their job and that oftentimes calls for using their weapon. My opinion is not a poular one, but Jesus was not popular with the masses either and as long as I have a clean heart with HIM, I’m good! God Bless this mans family and may God Doubly Bless this officer and his family as he now attempts to find new housing and fights the battle of his life.

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    Sharon Gay June 16, 2020 1:31 pm

    We need to demilitarize the police force, stop asking them to be the first responders for situations created by homelessness, addiction, mental illness, and immaturity, and reallocate resources to those challenges. David, count me in for your initiative.

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