Erika Shields, Atlanta’s 24th police chief, laid out an ambitious agenda at her introductory press conference last month.
Reduce the city’s growing homicide rate. Hire 250 new police officers by year’s end, while presenting a four-year plan to increase the pay for the rank and file. And tackle the scourge of juvenile lawbreakers.
“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, 49, said in a recent 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.”
Still for Shields, a former beat cop and only the second woman to hold Atlanta’s top law enforcement post, those challenges have, for the time being, faded to the background following an officer-involved fatal shooting of a 24-year-old father of one outside an Atlanta police annex. Shields is now faced with a decision that could potentially define her tenure, one all but certain to rile at least one of her constituencies.
Of course that’s dependent on the findings by the GBI, which is investigating the Jan. 25 shooting of Deaundre Phillips by veteran officer Yasin Abdulahad, and whether Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard concludes criminal charges are warranted.
So far, Shields has said little about the shooting. In an interview more than two weeks ago she called Abdulahad “a widely respected officer” with a “very solid” track record over his 11 years with the department.
But surveillance video of the shooting released a week later contradicted key elements of Abdulahad’s account to investigators and raised questions about whether the shooting, let alone a confrontation, was necessary.
The family of Deaundre Phillips, joined by a chorus of activists, have called for Abdulahad’s dismissal. Those calls grew louder when photos surfaced last week of the bruised and bloodied face of Anthony Walters, 25, who alleged he was beaten by Abdulahad outside a Midtown nightclub where the officer was working a side job. Abdulahad said Walters was belligerent — a claim backed up by an employee at the bar — and struck him in the forehead. Walters’ injuries were sustained, according to Abdulahd, when he fell as the off-duty officer tried to cuff him.
“When a chief has to grapple with this issue they have to walk a fine line between the expectations of the mayor, the city council, the press and the public and their most important audience: the police officers,” said retired Atlanta Police deputy chief Lou Arcangeli. “If you take away the sense of fairness, you can lose the morale of those officers fairly quickly.”
Shields assumed the job with the respect of the cops on the street born from her own experience. Her gender, and the fact that she is the first white chief since 1974, is hardly mentioned by Shields or, for that matter, anyone else.
“She’s real police,” Arcangeli said. “She was injured in the line of duty. She rose through the ranks. She walked the walk.”
Starting as a patrol officer, Shields barely missed a rung on the ladder to the top. She worked everything from internal affairs investigations to vice and narcotics detail, spending eight years as a plainclothes officer in Zone 3, which includes some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. It’s a far cry from what she set out to do in college.
“I got registered as a stockbroker and I hated it,” said Shields, who carries herself rigidly but is both engaging and thoughtful. “I could make a lot of money but I hated getting up every morning. I knew I always wanted to work in law enforcement.”
Shields was living in Boston at the time but the native (upstate) New Yorker had grown weary of the cold weather. She had visited Atlanta several times and said it felt like home. So she pulled up stakes and moved to a new city and a new phase in her life.
Those who’ve worked with and under Shields speak effusively about the new chief’s smarts and temperament. Even critics of the department applauded her appointment.
“I think she’s a very qualified, able and intelligent police officer,” said attorney Dan Grossman, lead counsel in the civil rights lawsuit against the city related to the illegal raid of the Atlanta Eagle gay bar, conducted without a warrant or probable cause. “Once she begins to spread her wings she could do some great things.”
She may not have much time to fulfill what Grossman calls her “vast potential.” She serves at the pleasure of the mayor, and the mayor who appointed her, Kasim Reed, will be out of office next January. It’ll be up to Reed’s successor whether Shields is retained.
Lowering the murder rate would enhance her job security. Atlanta last year reported the most murders in a decade, although overall the city’s crime rate was down. Colleagues past and present say she is uniquely qualified to tackle the problem, having served the last five years as Deputy Chief of Field Operations, where she developed the department’s strategic plan and oversaw the installation of a state-of-the-art Video Integration Center.
Harnessing those new technologies has proven a difficult task, Shields said.
“We have multiple disparate systems with huge amounts of information that don’t speak to each other,” she said. This is relevant because if I’m telling someone where to go it makes a difference whether you’re speculating or if you’re actually using all the information that’s available to us. We have to make technological improvements and that’s underway.”
“If you’re a tactical unit and you come back to me with some folks who don’t have insurance or who have bags of weed, that’s not helping get down violent crime,” Shields added. “We have to be more efficient.”
A “student of policing,” according to one former colleague, Shields’ time on the streets continues to shape her outlook. She noted the difference in how law enforcement treats the alarming rise in heroin use to the crack epidemic a generation earlier.
“With the heroin epidemic we’re being trained and issued equipment to save the lives of people who are overdosing,” Shields said. “But think of it. It’s white people who are using and abusing heroin. When we had black people in this same position we weren’t trying to rehabilitate.We were thinking about ways to lock them up forever.”
“Now I’m glad we’re at a point where we realize addiction is a disease and we’re helping people,” she continued. “So now, what I look at cleaning up is that mess we created in the judicial system in the ’80s and the ’90s.”
But first, a decision on Abdulahad’s future awaits. Attorney Chris Stewart, who represents the family of Deaundre Phillips, said he’s been impressed with the chief in their meetings over the annex shooting.
“I’m confident she’ll do the right thing,” he said.
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