Atlanta Mayor Bottoms issues orders aimed at police reform

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced Wednesday the issuance of seven administrative and executive orders aimed at reforming the police department’s use of force policies.

The orders include developing a plan for officers to receive non-retaliation language training; requiring officers to intervene when seeing their colleagues use unreasonable force; and expanding the departments’ Pre-arrest Diversion Initiative, which allows low-level offenders to avoid having an arrest on their record in exchange for community service.

The orders are based on recommendations from an advisory council Bottoms formed in June.

“We are confident their (officers') dedication and the efforts underway to reform the city’s use of force policies will continue to position APD as a national model for modern policing,” Bottoms said during a virtual question-and-answer session with local media.

Last month, Bottoms vetoed a unanimously passed City Council ordinance that would have banned choke holds — a tactic that sparked nationwide protests after George Floyd was killed in May by a Minneapolis police officer.

A choke hold ban has long been a part of the Atlanta Police Department’s Standard Operating Procedures.

“Neck restraints or carotid artery holds are not taught and are not approved for use by the department due to the potential for serious injury or death,” according to a provision in the department’s standard operating procedures.

The lone exception is when “it is immediately necessary to use force to prevent serious bodily injury or death and city-issued and/or authorized lethal or less lethal weapons are inoperable, inaccessible, or otherwise not available or effective.”

Atlanta Police Union national representative Ken Allen recalled that the ban had been in effect as far back as 1986. He added that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the union, but as a retired Atlanta police officer.

“We were trained that choke holds were unacceptable,” Allen said.

Allen applauded some aspects of the orders, particularly broadening Atlanta Citizen Review Board’s mediation program. If done correctly, he said it could prevent resolvable complaints from becoming a part of an officers permanent record.

But he said some of the reforms, such as those aimed at de-escalation tactics, were already part of the department’s policies.

Councilman Amir Farokhi, who introduced an amendment to the city’s budget in June that added $1.5 million to the Pre-arrest Diversion Initiative, said Bottoms’ orders “were a powerful step in the right direction.”

Other orders issued by Bottoms include: development of a standard operating procedure to “constantly” provide the citizen review board with officer disciplinary information; compiling reports and an internet dashboard that will allow the public to see use of force trends; and developing recommendations on how to resolve conflicts between the department and the citizen review board.

Bottoms also announced during Wednesday’s briefing that the city would begin providing COVID-19 testing for all essential employees beginning on Wednesday at the city’s wellness center across from City Hall.

Essential city employees, such as police, firefighters, and some watershed employees, cannot work from home because nature of their jobs -- making them at greater risk for contracting the virus.

Bottoms said that the city has between 8,500 to 9,000 employees. About half are considered essential, she said.

Last month, Tracey Thornhill, president of the local AFL-CIO, said in a letter that employees were “dropping like flies” and called for routine testing of all essential personnel.

Bottoms said that 289 employees have tested positive for the virus. Of those, 117 have recovered and returned to work and that two employees have died.