North Fulton police chiefs weigh how to answer calls for change

Protests, community meetings show city residents want action, but Sandy Springs, Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Roswell are still looking for solutions

Following weeks of protests in every city in north Fulton County, community conversations on race have started to happen — but not all officials are ready to say how they will address their community’s law enforcement concerns.

More affluent, suburban and conservative than the rest of Fulton County, north Fulton’s cities were an unexpected scene for protests over police treatment of Black people. Yet residents of Sandy Springs, Roswell, Alpharetta and Johns Creek joined in marches and community meetings, urging their own police departments to examine how they were treating minorities.

Police chiefs and mayors in all four cities, upset by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota, spoke out at rallies and meetings. They pointed out their officers receive training in how to de-escalate confrontations and how to recognize their own biases. They answered residents’ questions about police training and transparency in how they deal with complaints from the public.

But when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked those same police officials how they hope to bring change to their departments, some didn’t have an answer. Others cited their standard training and the number of minority police officers they employ as evidence they are striving to do better.

The deaths of Floyd and Rayshard Brooks at an Atlanta Wendy’s are bringing about change in policing that the public is calling for, Roswell Police Chief James Conroy said.

“You are seeing that the community wants responsiveness, accountability and compassion,” he said.

Conroy was hired for the Roswell position in July 2019 after serving as DeKalb County police chief. But his first years in law enforcement were when the world was focused on Los Angeles, California, after the beating of Rodney King by police officers in 1991.

That incident, which resulted in the officers responsible being put on on trial, brought more accountability to policing at the time, Conroy said. “That’s always been a very important part of my policing,” he said.

Conroy said he had conversations with each department employee when he started as chief to set a tone for racial tolerance. Before he arrived, a sergeant was demoted after detaining a 13-year-old boy in a freezing patrol car and separately, Conroy said an employee had a rebel flag in her driveway.

Credit: Roswell Police Department

Credit: Roswell Police Department

How departments respond to citizens’ latest demands for change will vary among departments, he said. “That’s where leadership comes in and the culture of the department,” Conroy said. “That’s where you find each department is different.”

De-escalation not a cure-all

A Johns Creek official who is managing police controversies there said de-escalation is not a cure-all for every situation.

“I definitely think there is room for enhanced training,” said Johns Creek City Manager Ed Densmore, who is also the city’s former police chief. “It can’t all fall on law enforcement. Not every situation can successfully be de-escalated. You can’t bring in a social worker when someone is armed with a weapon.”

In a 2018 incident that involved a mentally ill woman, Shukri Ali Said, was shot multiple times and killed by Johns Creek Police. Officers reported that Said refused to drop the knife she was holding. Family members said she was suffering from schizophrenia among other conditions. A lawsuit is pending against the officers involved.

Ryan Powell, public information officer for the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council that sets regulations for academies that teach officers, said local police departments are waiting for direction from Gov. Brian Kemp on new initiatives in training.

“We don’t teach chokeholds,” Powell said. “We haven’t been doing some of those things for years, so we aren’t quite sure what needs to be done. We are constantly reevaluating.”

New police recruits spend 11 weeks in training, Powell said. They receive standard training in firearms, policing tactics and learn how to de-escalate confrontations. After graduating from the police academy, officers in Georgia are required to take an additional 20 hours of training annually, which includes one hour each year of de-escalation instruction.

Most Roswell officers have taken a 40-hour class that teaches them techniques to use in incidents where people are mentally ill, abusing alcohol or drugs, or behaving in an irrational manor, said Sean Thompson, public information officer.

“I can say first-hand that I have used the skills learned from that class to diffuse and de-escalate very difficult situations,” Thompson said in a statement. “Having this knowledge and skill set can also allow for officers to check one another in the field. We can identify warning signs within other officers or offenders and try to prevent a negative interaction or use of force.”

Alpharetta Police Chief John Robison sent a statement to the AJC that his department trains well beyond standard state requirements. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Densmore said of Johns Creek’s training, “You can’t keep approaching the same things with the same toolbox. Even when things go right, you still look at things and say ‘How can things go better?’”

Diversity in policing

In Sandy Springs, Mayor Rusty Paul has said that he is gaining an awareness of racial bias in the world and he wants to hear the concerns of Black people and other people of color in the community on inclusiveness as well as police relations.

Paul declined to say what recommendations he has for the city’s police department. He said that he wants to wait until after a series of public conversations hosted by members of the community are completed at the end of August. Paul and other city officials are not directly participating in those conversations. The hosts will report back to the mayor on what takes place.

Paul told City Council members at a June meeting that he has been deeply moved by peaceful protests and the national outcry for change. He called racism “something that we all struggle with but it’s time that we begin to address this at a very deep and fundamental level.”

Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Springs Police

Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Springs Police

At the same meeting, Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone said the police department is more diverse than the city’s population, which is nearly 50% people of color. DeSimone declined interview requests from the AJC for this article.

A diverse police department seems to offer no guarantee of unbiased treatment for the public. In the last several years across the U.S., police officers of color were involved in the deaths of Black men in their custody. Two of the four officers arrested in Floyd’s death are minorities. In Atlanta, six police officers were charged with crimes in the May 30 tasing of two Black university students. Five of those officers were themselves Black.

Despite these instances, Roswell’s Chief Conroy said that it’s important to strive for diversity in the police department. Roswell’s minority officers make up 17% of the police force.

Nearly 25% of Johns Creek Police officers are people of color, according to a city spokesman. There, Police Chief Chris Byers has been under scrutiny after making negative comments about the Black Lives Movement on his personal Facebook page in June. Byers was removed from duty and placed under investigation when allegations that were separate from his social media comments arose.

Johns Creek officials said they are committed to better police relations with the community and are open to establishing a citizens advisory committee.

“The police department is here to serve everyone,” Densmore said of Johns Creek. “If the police department is missing the mark then we have to hear that, but it has to be tangible discussions so we can address it. You have to get to that common ground to get to progress.”