For new Atlanta Police chief, challenges await

“She’s real police”

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.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields recently sat down with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a wide-ranging interview, touching on everything from the challenges in dealing with juvenile lawbreakers to the so-called “Ferguson Effect.” Here are excerpts from that discussion.

On repeat offenders, which Mayor Kasim Reed calls the most significant issue facing his successor:

“It’s shocking the number of arrests, violent arrests, that individuals can have and still get out on a relatively low signature bond. There’s individuals out on bond for murder. It’s just baffling. I feel confident if practitioners of the court system had to face the scrutiny that we did they’d view their job through a very different lens. That’s not to find fault with them but to say we need your help. There’s a very small sector of people that are committing the vast majority of crimes in Atlanta. I need their help in putting these people in jail so we can take care of our citizens effectively. It’s imperative if we’re going to target violent crime in this city the criminal justice system must step up their game.”

On getting that message to the Fulton County judiciary:

“I really need people – the judges, some of the prosecutors — to recognize that you’re making this impossible for us. We are locking up the same people for violent crimes. When we have a robbery or carjacking I should not be able to look at the person and know they’ll be in our system for something else. And they will be in our system for something indicative of violence. It’s just a given. People will try to steer the conversation that you just want to lock up people. No, that’s not the point. I don’t want to lock up people. That’s why I’ve been involved in pre-arrest diversion. I think there’s an enormous amount of people who have substance abuse issues, economic issues. I actually want to cut back on the amount of people we are locking up. But we need to start locking up the right people, people who are violent and belong in jail.”

On “The Ferguson effect,” an idea popular among law enforcement that, due to the increased scrutiny of the police following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, officers have been forced to disengage, leading to an uptick in violent crime:

“I think it depends on the city, the location. I do think the Ferguson effect was very real and rattled some jurisdictions. I don’t think in Atlanta that affected us. The drivers that caused the Ferguson effect don’t exist in Atlanta. 21st century policing – we’re already doing these things. I do think the level of scrutiny that has been put on officers — the number of cameras, the indictments — has affected policing some. But I will say we brought this on ourselves to a large degree. The stuff that cameras and telephones bring to light. I’m as appalled as the next person. As awful as it is it’s good this stuff is getting aired so we can remedy it.”

On the importance of intervention in dealing with juvenile offenders:

“They get bolder as they older – the types of crimes they commit get steadfastly worse. The next thing you know they’ve graduated to murder. It’s very disheartening to see. What’s missing is that intervention piece. Let me be clear – this department does not want to be locking up young black males. What’s missing is a middle ground between incarceration and putting them back in a place where they have nothing. These kids will grab the first hand that is extended to them. And that’s usually been the gangs.

“The juveniles know there’s no consequences, no deterrence. If they get caught they’re back out the next two or three days. Most of it has a connection to someone who is directing these territories. You’ll find ringleaders who are 15 years old and they’re ringleaders because they’ve been doing crimes since they were 9. Getting these kids, when they’re younger, in PAL (Police Athletic League), a mentoring program, getting them in here as interns … anything we can do to put a positive spin on law enforcement. The centers of hope in this city have been terrific but there’s such a need. You really have to get these kids really young. I would say you want to get them by the time they’re 9. It’s possible to turn things around after that but your job gets progressively difficult.”

On handling officers accused of excessive force:

“Everyone wants a policy that you follow. You have to understand every situation is different. Our number one commitment is to do the right thing, be more transparent. If you have a video where someone is shot in the back it’s pretty straightforward. If you have Baltimore, where you indict people before you have an investigation, you’re going to get a mistrial. There’s not a policy that can be applied to every situation. If you’re committed to doing the right thing and being transparent .. I think that’s the right solution.”

On dealing with the public’s concerns over crime:

“We live and breathe by data. But the public doesn’t want to judge our job performance just on data. If they did we’d be a five-star police department because (crime) is down 27 percent. I am focused on violent crime and getting violent crime, including homicides, down. I have to have the help of the judicial system. We have great people … it’s more a matter of us all coming to the table and really identifying the gaps in the system and how we can close them. And I think we can do that.

“What I fully recognize now is people don’t feel safe. And people have to feel safe. And the data doesn’t mean anything if people don’t feel safe.”