Crime unrelenting in Atlanta as 2020 draws to a close

It’s been a historically deadly year

When Erika Shields stepped aside as Atlanta police chief in June, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was confronted with what would become one of the bigger challenges of her administration.

“It is clear we do not have another day, another hour, another minute to waste,” Bottoms said then. Shields’ move came after an officer, since fired and charged with felony murder and other crimes, shot Rayshard Brooks to death following an attempted arrest and violent scuffle.

Bottoms had been widely hailed for her heartfelt response when peaceful protests devolved into riots following the Minneapolis death of George Floyd in May.

“This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said. “This is chaos.”

A spokesman for now President-elect Joe Biden said he was in awe of Bottoms following her powerful address.

Today, though, critics are demanding a more forceful local response. As of Wednesday, the Atlanta Police Department had investigated 144 homicides this year, the highest tally in nearly two decades. Other crimes are also on the rise. Over a recent 28-day period, auto thefts shot up 83 percent, and street racers remain a nuisance.

“The mayor has found herself in a difficult situation,” said Dean Dabney, who chairs Georgia State University’s criminal justice department. “If she’s too appeasing to what the community wants, she’s going to alienate the police. And vice versa.”

Retired police administrator Rodney Bryant was appointed interim chief in June and it’s not clear if he’s staying long term. The mayor, who has discussed crime and other matters via the Zoom video platform with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said she wants to see a “reimagining” of policing in Atlanta.

“We have to get a handle on” crime, Bottoms said.

Many residents, business owners and other community members are eager for that to happen.

“Today, there’s just a lawlessness that prevails in the city,” said Charles Meriwether, who lives in the Garden Hills neighborhood near Peachtree Road. He and many of his neighbors are frustrated and unsettled by the constant roar of street racing and the occasional sounds of gunshots. Not far from his neighborhood, police have investigated seven shootings this year - one fatal - at Lenox Square. At Atlantic Station recently, a massive brawl captured on video left one youth badly injured.

“There’s nothing being done,” Meriwether said.

Once-strong relationship turns rocky

Last year, Bottoms was celebrated by cops after she made good on long-promised pay raises, up to 30 percent for some officers.

“This is the largest pay raise ever given,” former police union chief Ken Allen said in February 2019. “She can stand up and boast. No one can deny it.”

This summer, the relationship changed. Bottoms’ quick decision to fire Garrett Rolfe, the officer who shot Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot near downtown, enraged the rank and file. After Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges days later, hundreds of officers staged an unofficial “blue flu” in protest.

Morale remains low, said one high-ranking officer, who wished to remain anonymous so he could speak openly about the current state of the department.

“They want us to be politicians,” the veteran officer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m not a politician, I’m a cop. I do my job without complaints. I do it the right way. But that’s not good enough.”

Bottoms was rumored to be heading for a post in Biden’s cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. On Tuesday the Biden campaign announced he had selected Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge.

“Until people believe they’re going to be there, the rank and file get the sense that everything is temporary,” Dabney said of the mayor and the interim chief.

Bryant’s title alone hamstrings Bryant, who doesn’t have the clout with officers that his predecessor possessed, he said.

“They respected (Shields),” said Dabney who has consulted with APD and other metro Atlanta departments. Shields remains with the Atlanta department in an advisory capacity. “Even when they loathed some of her policy changes, they tolerated it. That says a lot.”

While Bryant says morale has improved, officers have continued to leave the department in numbers higher than usual. By the end of September, nearly twice as many officers had left the force this year compared to 2019, internal documents show.

“There’s not just enough police on the streets. We’re 400 to 500 officers short,” said the high-ranking officer. The city, budgeted for roughly 2,000 sworn officers, currently has 1602, a police spokesman said.

Bring in the experts

In November, Bottoms announced she had contracted the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum to review APD training and policies.

The firm will spend 18 months shadowing APD officers and command staff. PERF’s fee is being paid by Atlanta Committee for Progress, a coalition of CEOs and other civic leaders who regularly consult with the mayor.

Bottoms vows to implement changes PERF recommends. What that means for Bryant is unclear. PERF executive director Chuck Wexle told the AJC in June that the city erred in letting Shields step down. Bottoms says Shields was not forced out.

“She’s just the kind of chief I’d be looking for if I was leading the search for Atlanta,” Wexler said then.

Wexler declined a more recent interview request, saying he would talk after the firm completes “the introduction stage of our process.”

PERF was a safe pick for the mayor, Dabney said.

“It’s objective in its orientation, not just a rubber stamps for cops,” he said. “But the changes we can expect will likely be pretty generic.”

In 2015 PERF issued a report that concluded police training in many agencies was “woefully outdated and insufficient.”

“As we look back at the most controversial police shooting incidents, we sometimes find that while the shooting may be legally justified, there were missed opportunities to ratchet down the encounter, to slow things down, to call in additional resources, in the minutes before the shooting occurred,” Wexler wrote then.

That’s in line with Bottoms’ previous comments about “reimagining” the department, though activists say the changes don’t go far enough.

“We respect their integrity, but PERF is made up of former police executives,” said Jared Sawyer, who was on the front lines of the police reform movement that took to the streets this past summer. “We need to be a part of a collaboration with the mayor’s office and the city council is we’re going to implement real meaningful reform policies.”

Sawyer said the city also needs to own up to past sins.

In October, nearly two dozen attorneys representing the families of citizens killed by Atlanta police offices met with the media to accuse the mayor of a double standard when it comes to compensating their clients.

Sam Starks, who was among the attorneys there that day, said the city has, in a sense, scapegoated its officers.

“They’re throwing the officers under the bus for being inadequately trained,” he said. “They feel like they can fire the officers and then just wash their hands of it. But that doesn’t fix the problem.”

‘Our eye is on crime’

Council President Felicia Moore says many Atlantans simply don’t feel safe.

“They would like to hear more from the mayor,” Moore said. “There’s been a lack of communication. People want more updates. They want to know specifically what is being done.”

Bottoms has spoken out on crime, mostly via Zoom ― a constraint foisted upon her by the pandemic. (The mayor herself was diagnosed with coronavirus earlier this year and recovered).

In late October she acknowledged “numbers we have not seen in Atlanta as it relates to our murder rate. We recognize that this is a problem. Right now, our eye is on crime in Atlanta.”

Moore said the council is ready to move forward on eight measures adopted in July that included bans on chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, along with comprehensive reporting when officers use their weapons. Bottoms vetoed the reforms on procedural grounds.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about reforms but things have slowed down a bit,” Moore said.

Permanent leadership of the police department is also needed, she said.

Bottoms has not conducted a nationwide search for a police chief, saying the timing wasn’t night. Too many other cities are looking for new chiefs, diluting the pool of candidates, she has said.

“The lack of certainty is a big problem,” Dabney said. “You can’t start marching forward if you don’t know where you’re going.”