Atlanta City Council votes down withholding police funding

The Atlanta City Council on Saturday narrowly voted down an ordinance that would have withheld $73 million of the Atlanta Police Department’s budget until Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s administration drafted a plan to reinvent the culture of policing in the city and make it a national model for law enforcement.

The 7-8 vote came after two teleconference council meetings and a listening session this past week, during which the council heard thousands of voice mails of a public comment. Many called for them to defund the police, as a handful of other cities have done in the aftermath of mass demonstrations sparked by the Minneapolis Police killing of George Floyd in late May.

Council members Michael Julian Bond, Andrea Boone, Howard Shook, Marci Collier Overstreet, J.P. Matzigkeit, Joyce Sheperd, Cleta Winslow and Dustin Hillis voted against the ordinance, while Councilmembers Jennifer Ide, Matt Westmoreland, Andre Dickens, Natalyn Archibong, Amir R. Farokhi, Antonio Brown and Carla Smith voted for it.

The council also narrowly approved a non-binding resolution demanding that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration draft a plan to reform policing in the city.

The ordinance, which would have sequestered $73 million of the department’s $217 million operational budget until Dec. 31, was meant to provide the council leverage to oversee the process.

Ide, who authored the legislation, said it was not intended to punish police, but hold the administration and council accountable.

“I didn’t want to spend the time of putting together some blue ribbon panel that we all pick our political friends to be on,” she said. “We need to do our work. This is much more about the elected officials doing our work than the police officers.”

Bond, who voted for the resolution, but against the ordinance, said the possible defunding of the department sent a horrible message to police officers.

“These folks have mortgages,” he said. “They have bills. They have obligations that extend beyond six months.”

Bottoms convened an advisory council to make recommendations for how to reform the police department use of force policies earlier this month.

The unrest in Atlanta intensified when Garrett Rolfe, a white officer, shot Rayshard Brooks on the night of June 12 after a struggle in which Brooks wrestled away an officer’s Taser and fired the stun gun at officers as he fled. An autopsy found Brooks died from two gunshot wounds “of the back.”

Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard Jr. charged Rolfe with felony murder on Wednesday. Meanwhile, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation review of the shooting is still underway.

The council’s specially called meeting to approve the city’s budget began on Friday morning and lasted until 5 a.m. Saturday, as members listened to more than a thousand messages of public comment, before adjourning at 1 p.m. the same day.

The initial resolution, coupled with the ordinance, would have withheld nearly six months of the department’s budget and required that the administration produce decades of data on city police spending, city crime rates and comparisons of department’s budget with peer cities.

It would have mandated monthly administration updates on the status of recommendations for reform, including ensuring a police force that reflects the city’s demographics, extensive training on cultural awareness, use of force and de-escalation tactics and requiring officers participate in programming on the negative role of law enforcement on community/police relations.

At first, the legislation had 12 sponsors — a veto-proof majority — but several council members asked for the removal of their names from the resolution after further reflection.

Some said they feared it created too much uncertainty among police, who have been promised $12 million in raises over the next year.

Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit said he agreed that the city needed to re-imagine its police department, but that expectations of police aren’t necessarily consistent with the laws, policies and procedures that now govern them.

“Our police officers are caught in the middle,” he said. “That’s a horrible place for them to be.”

Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet said that her constituents had expressed concerns about rising crime in their communities and wanted more police, not less.

“I have not spoken to one district constituent who would like to have less police officers,” Overstreet said. “What they are saying is they want a better relationship with our police officers.”