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To manage unruly neighbors, Atlanta should move zoning enforcement to police: audit

The Atlanta Police Department now has some code enforcement duties. The officer's name has been obscured. (Photo by David Pendered. )

By David Pendered

The city’s zoning enforcement is poorly managed and should be turned over to the police department; however, the city’s planning department disagrees with this notion. Or so says an audit submitted Tuesday to the Atlanta City Council.

Zoning enforcement is a hot-button, quality-of-life issue now regulated by Atlanta’s City Planning department. It joins the slate of matters involving city planning left by the previous council for the newly seated council to consider.

Two looming issues include the proposed tree protection ordinance and a proposal to allow additional residences to be established in existing neighborhoods near MARTA rail stations. The increased residential density is portrayed as an effort to ease the reported shortage of dwellings in Atlanta.

The performance audit that calls for police to handle zoning enforcement was overseen by Amanda Noble, Atlanta’s independent city auditor. This is the number one recommendation in an audit that states Atlanta’s peer cities have placed police in charge of zoning enforcement.

“We recommend that the Commissioner of City Planning and the Police Chief work together to align zoning enforcement responsibilities under Police’s Code Enforcement Section,” the audit states. “We spoke to leadership of Planning and Police and both were initially receptive to consolidating responsibilities. Planning, however, has since expressed reluctance to the move due to plans to restructure the Inspections and Enforcement Division with adequate staff, and because Planning houses historical documentation needed to conduct zoning research…”

Planning Commissioner Tim Keane pushed back strongly against the proposal.

“This would be ineffective,” Keane concluded in his Nov. 4, 2021 response to Noble. “It would confuse citizens and cause a delay in several processes, ultimately impacting customer service. The Atlanta Police Department is already over-burdened. As such this transfer of responsibilities will undoubtedly set both departments up for failure.”

The audit was conducted at the behest of the council into the Inspections and Enforcement Division of the Office of Buildings, which is part of City Planning. On Tuesday, the council’s Community Development and Human Services was assigned the audit recommendations. The committee chair is Councilmember Jason Dozier, who was elected in 2021.

Zoning enforcement is a city service that tends to be overlooked until a problem arises. Issues typically are reported by residents who see neighbors turning their home into a business.

Routine complaints include an illegal rooming house, auto repairs on residential property, a new building too close to a property line, an unlicensed daycare facility and a fence that exceeds a maximum height, according to the audit.

The process calls for residents to submit a complaint. An inspector is supposed to conduct an on-site visit within 72 hours, according to the audit.

The audit portrays the planning department as unable to handle the volume of complaints. Workers said they haven’t been trained on using the computer system. It recommends the employees receive training.

One example cited in the audit is the total of 4,733 complaints submitted on zoning and code enforcement issues, from the start of 2017 through 2020. Of these cases, 58 percent were not assigned an inspector. Another issue involved the closure status of cases. Case close dates were blank in 2,407 complaints, the audit stated.

Division workers explained that incomplete computer records may account for some of the shortfalls, according to the audit.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.



  1. Dan Immergluck, PhD January 21, 2022 9:49 am

    This is an extremely bad idea. Inserting armed officers, or police of any kind, into zoning issues is unnecessary and very unwise. We need to find more ways to limit the reach of armed officers into daily life, not expand it, and inserting them into land use disputes or issues makes no sense. If there is a problem with implementation in the planning department, fix that. Don’t create opportunities for escalating conflicts into violent outcomes, or put zoning in the hands of folks not trained to deal with such issues.Report

  2. Darin Givens January 21, 2022 10:51 am

    I agree with Dan — this is a really bad idea. My assumption is that this article is missing some very important details about what Tim Keane would prefer instead of using APD for these complaints. I’m guessing he stated that he would like money spent on new hires for the planning department who could handle these issues without a gun.Report

  3. DAVID BUTLER January 21, 2022 10:59 am

    I know we are living in the golden age of stupidity, but the idea of inserting police into matters of zoning really takes the cake. They don’t have the time or the training to analyze zoning / housing complaints. What the audit should have reported on is how many complaints are frivolous (originating with the uninformed, vengeful neighbors, developers, real estate agents, etc) or get sent straight to court without a proper corrective notice. Atlanta cannot issue a building permit in a timely fashion, curb drag racing, or pick up household garbage regularly but in fact what it is most efficient at is citing homeowners for tall grass, a hose in the yard, or stopping work at a duly permitted construction site.Report

  4. Kristina MORMINO January 21, 2022 11:42 am

    I support the other comments. This op-ed seems tone deaf given the current cultural contexts of Atlanta. Imagine a gentrifying neighborhood in which a new white resident calls in armed police officers to enforce code against a long-term black neighbor. Or imagine the optics of police spending resources on code enforcement in a neighborhood that is experiencing drag racing or break-ins.Report

  5. Don Broussard, MCP January 21, 2022 12:42 pm

    Unlike Professor Immergluck, I’ve actually run a zoning enforcement group in the metro area (Gwinnett County) and I can assure you there are times when armed police officers are needed — like the time that guy took a shot at me for asking him to close down his illegal landfill. But those times are very rare and we are in agreement that code enforcement does not belong in an urban police department like Atlanta’s; a department that has its hands full with protests, armed robberies and homicides. Violent crimes will always get priority and should. Police administration will only see code enforcement as a budgetary nuisance; a drain on their money. Plus: they are not trained for this. Writing and serving citations for zoning, tree removal, and building / housing code violations etc. require people who understand those subjects and can show judgment in recognizing violations in order to resolve them without court appearances. It also requires professionals who can document evidence and testify to get a conviction in front of judges that are sometimes indifferent or even hostile to government enforcement. Regrettably, Tim Keane has opened himself up to this in my opinion by not taking care of the nuts and bolts of planning and development in his department — too much visioning and not enough implementing. Thanks to David Pendered for covering this.Report

  6. Paula Grad January 21, 2022 4:05 pm

    This is such a bad idea. Ramp up the planning departments staff in order to. handle the work properly. Don’t shift to a department that is short staffed and needs to focus on police work.Report

  7. Shaun H January 21, 2022 6:33 pm

    Just want to add another Atlanta voice to the chorus here and say what an extraordinary bad idea it would be to put cops in charge of zoning enforcement.

    For years now, how overburdened and overbearing police departments can be has been at the forefront of national discussions. The implications for racial and class bias should be pretty obvious here, esp. in a rapidly gentrifying city like Atlanta. Should be hard to believe anyone would come up with a recommendation so stupid but sadly nothing surprises me anymore.

    Give the planning dept the resources they need to do their job. Keep armed law officers out of it unless there’s a violent crime involved.Report

  8. Cassandra January 22, 2022 3:49 pm

    Just adding that I agree with all the comments thus far, and am completely surprised this opinion piece was even published on these pages.
    Just NO.Report

  9. Donald Shockey January 24, 2022 10:44 am

    Agree that that the recommendation for getting the overburdened police involved is a mistake and an overstep with the potential for really bad unintended consequences. But that shouldn’t eclipse the urgency of the need to respond to the core finding which is that the current code enforcement effort has been an abysmal failure for many years. More than 58% of complaints were never even assigned to an inspector, much less resolved. Staff the planning department already and start getting the job done, there are thousands of blatant violations all over the city.Report


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