She’s respected by the rank and file and popular with residents. In her first year on the job as Atlanta’s police chief, murders decreased significantly (although 2018 has seen a 25 percent increase compared to this time one year ago). Erika Shields is also a trailblazer, becoming the first openly gay top cop in the city’s history. And she’s just the second woman to lead the department.
It’s an impressive resume, one that would seemingly strengthen Shields’ hold on the job. So why, then, will she soon find herself answering to the man she succeeded as chief 22 months ago? And why is the city preparing to pay another hefty administrative salary even as it struggles to recruit and retain officers because of chronic low pay?
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Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms insists her decision to bring back George Turner, in a position the city abolished 28 years ago, is not a reflection on Shields but rather a commitment to making Atlanta safer. Turner will oversee APD and the city’s Department of Corrections, Office of Emergency Preparedness and Fire Rescue Department. Shields declined comment.
“Atlanta is preparing for several major events in the coming months, including the Super Bowl,” Bottoms said in a press release. “The new Public Safety Commissioner will be able to coordinate the departments in a unified manner.”
But some say the move may be intended to push Shields out. Asked about that, Turner responded cryptically.
“The mayor is the mayor,” Turner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “She can do what she wants with personnel.”
Bottoms said having a commissioner in place will allow the city’s public safety department chiefs to “focus more effectively on critical day-to-day operations.”
In an interview with The AJC, Turner said he struggled with promoting large capital projects and overall planning during his seven years as chief — “It would have been great to have someone concentrating on the high-end political issues.”
“I’m a cop but I’m a leader,” he said. “The mayor is looking for additional oversight and someone who can concentrate in that space.”
While he doesn’t have the job just yet, his appointment is all but certain once questions about how he’ll be compensated are resolved. Initially, Turner’s salary was to be paid by the Atlanta Hawks — for whom he now serves as Vice President of Safety, Security and Parking — as an executive on loan for one year.
The City Council’s Finance Committee raised objections to that plan, noting that the Hawks owners stand to gain from the proposed $5 billion redevelopment of downtown’s Gulch.
“Has anyone wondered how it might look to have the same people lobbying for the Gulch deal providing the city with a thing of value?”city councilman Howard Shook asked. The council’s finance committee agreed, placing the appointment on hold.
Shook said he believes the mayor’s office will find a way to pay Turner, whose compensation would likely fall somewhere between “200(,000)-something and 300(,000)-something.” (Turner was paid a yearly salary of $240,697 when he retired, roughly $40,000 more than Shields’ starting salary in 2017.) There will also be support staff to pay, office expenses and other assorted costs.
Could that money be better spent on the city’s police officers who, according to a recent study commissioned by the Atlanta Police Foundation, are paid below the median rates of their law enforcement peers, with a lower floor and lower ceiling?
“This just sounds like a layer of redundancy that’s unnecessary … a total waste of taxpayer dollars” said retired Atlanta cop Lou Arcangeli, who joined the force one year before the city appointed its first public safety commissioner, A. Reginald Eaves. Arcangeli had ascended to deputy chief when the commissioner’s position was eliminated in 1990.
“APD is already a top-heavy bureaucracy,” he said, noting one of its six divisions, Contingency Operations, is already responsible for planning and implementing a strategic force for major events like the Super Bowl. Now, apparently, that will fall under Turner’s purview.
He’ll also be charged with addressing a recent spike in property crime — auto larcenies are up 10 percent from one year ago — a responsibility seemingly not in line with the job as outlined.
Still, the council voted unanimously to approve the creation of public safety commissioner.
“Chief executives should have the right to structure their organization however they choose,” said councilman Matt Westmoreland.
Their familiarity with Turner, credited with reducing crime and repairing morale during his tenure as chief, didn’t hurt, said Shook. He added he was confident the mayor remains committed to making officers’ pay competitive with comparable departments nationwide.
As for Shields’ future, Shook said “the administration did a fairly persuasive job of saying the chief is still the chief.”
“I don’t know if that’s going to be a problem or not,” he said.
Westmoreland said the council retains full confidence in Atlanta’s 26th police chief.
“I haven’t heard anything negative (regarding Shields),” he said.
Turner offered effusive praise for Shields after she was named his successor, citing the then-deputy chief’s tireless efforts in repairing the department’s relationship with the city’s LGBT community following the ill-conceived raid of the Atlanta Eagle bar.
“We’re great friends. Erika and I go back a long ways – since November 2009,” he said at the time. “I hope she will continue to call.”
Arcangeli said it appears Shields is being unfairly scapegoated for shortcomings not of her making.
“If there are any problems with the police department it’s due to our inability to retain experienced officers,” Arcangeli said. The recent compensation study found that APD is hemorrhaging officers at twice the rate of their peers, losing roughly 250 officers annually and nearing a 20 percent vacancy rate. “That’s on (previous mayors) Shirley Franklin and Kasim Reed.”
Shields shouldn’t have to earn Bottoms’ confidence, according to Arcangeli, famously demoted by former Mayor Bill Campbell for exposing APD’s practice of under-counting crimes.
Rather, “The mayor should be trying to earn the loyalty of Chief Shields,” he said.