On the first night of recent protests in downtown Atlanta, Police Chief Erika Shields struck a non-confrontational tone, saying she wasn’t looking to make lots of arrests and that she empathized with demonstrators outraged over the death of George Floyd.
“Our posture in Atlanta is one of tolerance,” she said then. “It’s the birthplace of civil rights.”
On Saturday, she gave her final remarks as the city’s top cop, having opted to step aside following the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks outside a University Avenue fast-food restaurant Friday night.
“For more than two decades, I have served alongside some of the finest women and men in the Atlanta Police Department,” Shields said in a statement. “Out of a deep and abiding love for this city and this department, I offered to step aside as police chief. APD has my full support, and Mayor Bottoms has my support on the future direction of this department.”
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced the move a little after 5 p.m. Shields, who has appeared with the mayor during recent public addresses, did not attend.
“It is time for the city to move forward and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Shields’ statement said.
The move came on the heels of six Atlanta officers being charged after two college students were tased on May 30, the second night of downtown rallies held in response to Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Four of those officers were fired.
Shields hardly missed a rung in her climb to become Atlanta’s second female police chief; she also was the city’s first openly gay chief.
She worked everything from internal affairs investigations to vice and narcotics detail. For eight years she was a plainclothes officer in Zone 3, home to some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. She became chief in late 2016, replacing George Turner, and made reform a priority.
“I really want to see a paradigm shift where we’re taking the young black males that need assistance, need direction and we can really see some quantifiable change in what’s occurring in their lives,” Shields said in a 2017 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “For too long, the emphasis has been on locking them up. No matter how we couch it, no matter how necessary it is … that’s B.S. It’s because we locked up so many young black males in the first place that we find ourselves in the position we are today.”
Shields joined the Atlanta Police Department in 1995. Lou Arcangeli, who was deputy chief at the time, said she stood out from the beginning. APD will miss her “analytical, deliberate approach,” he said Saturday.
“Mayor Bottoms now owns any problems that arise,” Arcangeli said. “If the crime rate goes up, that’s going to be on the mayor.”
It was Shields’ decision to step aside hours after one of her officers fatally shot Brooks, Bottoms said.
“While there may be debate as to whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force, I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” Bottoms said. “I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force and have called for the immediate termination of the officer.”
Atlanta Police Union representative Ken Allen said the rank and file was loyal to the chief.
“She fought for their pay raise,” said Allen, who said officers were devastated by the news.“Morale is really low right now.”
The assistant chief to Shields, Rodney Bryant, will become the interim chief while the search begins to fill the job, Bottoms said. Shields will remain with APD in a role to be determined, the mayor said.
During Shields’ tenure she has served as a patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant and major prior to her appointment to deputy chief.
She has a bachelor of arts in international studies from Webster University and a master’s in criminal justice from Saint Leo University. When she was sworn in as chief, Shields thanked then Mayor Reed for the opportunity.
“I am truly humbled to be given the opportunity to lead the Atlanta Police Department,” Shields said. “I am truly grateful to the faith that Mayor Reed is showing in me.”
Shields drew some criticism with last year’s decision to end police chases in most circumstances but has enjoyed career triumphs as well. She faced a monumental task in 2019 when the city hosted the Super Bowl, a major event requiring years of planning. The 10-day event was deemed a success for law enforcement.
At her first news conference in February 2017, Shields said reducing violent crime in Atlanta is the top priority for the city’s police department. And repeat offenders, including juveniles, were a big part of the problem, she said then.
“We have an obligation to the citizens of Atlanta,” she said, “to clean up this violent crime.”
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