Caught ‘off-balance’ by violent demonstrators, APD changes tactics

AJC photo: Ben Gray
AJC photo: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

As protesters gathered around the CNN Center Friday night, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields struck a conciliatory tone, mingling among the crowd and promising their voices would be heard.

“I really don’t want this to be an arrest-fest,” the chief said, adding she wanted to make sure “we’re not the ones escalating the situation.”

Atlanta, after all, has a proud legacy of civic-minded protest.

“Our posture in Atlanta is one of tolerance. It’s the birthplace of civil rights. We accommodate the folks,” Shields said. “We know we’re going to get yelled at. We know we’re going to get spit on. That’s OK. That was our posture as we went into last night’s event.”

ajc.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

But by the time the sun rose Saturday, shattered glass and emptied stores bore witness to the unintended consequences of the department’s hands-off approach. Luxury retailers in The Shops Buckhead and a grocery store around the corner were ransacked. Vandals helped themselves to booze from restaurant and liquor-store shelves in downtown Atlanta and turned parking lots into speedways.

>> MINUTE-BY-MINUTE: Second day of demonstrations begin, curfew for city of Atlanta

>> PHOTOS: Atlanta braces for second night of protests

>> MORE: Atlanta stories from a night of violence

Social media captured much of the melee, and in any number of video clips it seemed rioters had their run of things. Where were the cops?

“Yes, you caught us off-balance once,” Shields said at a Saturday evening news conference. “It’s not going to happen twice.”

ajc.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

The destructive looters weren’t the original demonstrators, Shields said. A clue, she said, was some of the bad actors didn’t seem to know how to get around Atlanta. By the time APD realized outside aggressors had infiltrated the crowds, though, it was too late to crack down, she said.

“It became apparent to me that my officers were in extreme harm,” she said. “I really was afraid I was going to have an officer shot and killed.”

Atlanta police arrested 71 people overnight, the department said Saturday afternoon.

More: Atlanta orders curfew, Kemp says authorities won't 'back down' as new protests loom

Assessments of Shields’ leadership varied in the aftermath of Friday’s violence. While some accused the department of being too passive, others blamed APD officers for inciting violence. A widely circulated video clip showed a member of APD’s cycling patrol pushing a female activist, Ashley Simpson-Haley, to the ground with his bike. She said she plans to file a complaint against the officer.

Marlon Kautz, of the grass roots organization CopWatch, said he witnessed “an unprecedented level of force” by police.

“We’ve never seen police use so much chemical weapons against peaceful demonstrators,” Kautz said Saturday. “We saw people being dragged across broken glass as they were arrested.”

But there could be no denying the presence of antagonists who used the protest as a springboard to destruction that spread from downtown to Buckhead, Shields said.

>> RELATED: Violence rocks Atlanta as peaceful protest ends in flames

>> PHOTOS: Atlanta rally against police violence draws hundreds, turns violent

>> COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta protests 

“They were not here to protest. They were here to destroy Atlanta,” said a weary sounding Shields, whose Saturday tone contrasted sharply from Friday’s when she said, “Quite frankly, I’m ready to just lock people up.”

Jonathan Doone, who lives above The Shops Buckhead, witnessed some of the destruction and found the police department’s response to be inadequate. He heard gunfire and saw looting until about 6:30 a.m. Saturday but while there was a significant police presence at Lenox Square, there were few officers in his area, he said.

“They were really stressed,” said Doone, who dialed 911 as rioters cleared out the high-end shops nearby. “I felt for them. They couldn’t do anything about it.”

In a switch from Friday night’s tactics, Atlanta police started making arrests before the sun set on Saturday. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9 p.m. curfew in hopes of a safer night.

“I ask you to please, if at all possible, find yourselves in a safe place, in your home, this evening,” she said during the news conference with Shields and other city leaders. “Please know where your children are this evening. We do not want to have to arrest your children. We do not want to have to detain anyone, but we will maintain order in the streets of Atlanta this evening.”

Retired APD Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli gave his former department high marks for how officers responded during Friday’s protests into Saturday’s destruction. A more aggressive stance could’ve made the situation worse, he said.

ajc.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

“When you compare Atlanta to other departments, our officers showed remarkable restraint,” he said. “When you get a group of 100 or so determined anarchists, they can really cause some damage.”

He recalled the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of all but one of the four Los Angeles police cops captured on video beating motorist Rodney King.

“Grady (Memorial Hospital) was turning away anyone who wasn’t seriously injured,” he said. “The ER was overwhelmed.”

Arcanageli said Shields deserves credit for identifying with the peaceful protesters, avoiding a “us against them” dynamic.

“I think we have the right chief and the right mayor at the right time,” he said.

Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said APD made a statement by not showing up in riot gear on Friday night, although officers were more heavily fortified on Saturday.

“A show of force could’ve set them off a lot sooner and a lot worse,” Champion said. “I don’t know that anybody can put themselves in Chief Shields’ shoes and say their decision would’ve been better than hers.”

Those directly impacted by the violence and looting had mixed reviews.

ajc.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Credit: Ben@bengray.com

Susana Chavez, the executive vice president of Parking Company of America, said she had no serious complaints about the police’s response to the protest. The business’ office across from Centennial Park was damaged as rioters broke windows and set a fire inside. She said the police department kept in communication with her throughout the night, as alarms went off and firefighters responded.

“I trust them to do their job,” Chavez said. “They know their job. It’s a difficult situation.”

Staff writers Alexis Stevens and JD Capelouto contributed to this article.