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