It’s a lengthy audition under a spotlight’s constant glare, but George Turner, Atlanta’s interim police chief, is enjoying it immensely.
“It’s a testing period,” Turner said Tuesday, while in route to a neighborhood meeting. “People want to see if you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do.”
It’s also a chance for the 29-year Atlanta police veteran to stake an early claim to the job he unabashedly desires.
“I have a burning passion to be the next police chief here in Atlanta,” he said in a recent interview.
By early May, Turner, 50, should know whether he has the job.
Mayor Kasim Reed has vowed to name a new police chief in his first 120 days. His preference is to hire from within APD, but he has said Atlanta candidates must compete as part of a national search. A committee, yet to be named, will recommend up to five finalists. Reed will name his chief.
Reed appears to have given Turner a leg up by naming him interim chief.
“I don’t think the mayor would have named George to that position if he didn’t have thoughts he could be chief,” said Carlos Banda, who recently retired as deputy chief after 37 years at APD. Turner would be a good pick because of his loyalty to Atlanta and his knowledge of the department, Banda said.
Still, Turner could find himself in a tough situation if something goes wrong at APD before a permanent chief is named, Banda added. “The blame could be dropped on him.”
During a speech Wednesday to the Buckhead Coalition, Reed said he named Turner so the top position would not be vacant during the search. So far, the mayor said, his decision to name Turner temporarily is bearing fruit.
“I think we’re seeing the results now,” Reed said.
Turner has held varied positions at APD. He was former Mayor Andrew Young’s driver on a security detail that took him to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea; he helped start gang and domestic violence units; and led the Zone 1 precinct in northwest Atlanta. Most recently, he was deputy chief of the Support Services Division, which included management of APD’s $164 million budget and overseeing the communication system, recruiting and training.
On the streets, Turner was a cool-headed cop. He says he never fired his weapon or fought with any of the hundreds of suspects he arrested.
“I have been extraordinarily blessed,” he said. “One thing I learned was that if you give people an opportunity to talk, no matter how upset they are, most of them will calm down.”
Turner became interim chief, replacing Richard Pennington, on Jan. 4, the day Reed was sworn in as mayor. Turner said APD wants to hire more officers by year’s end. The department will target gang violence and aggressive panhandlers and continue to improve its 911 call center, he said.
While Pennington was seen as aloof and disengaged, Turner has reached out to the community and to the rank and file. He has met with neighborhood groups and attended roll calls, taking questions from officers.
John Howard had been trying for three years to get APD brass to attend a neighborhood meeting. “This time, I only had to ask once,” said Howard, of the Friends of English Avenue association. He nodded in appreciation to Turner, who spoke briefly Tuesday before rushing out to attend a meeting with the new mayor.
During Pennington’s tenure, the department often clashed with the Citizen Review Board, which investigates complaints of police misconduct. Yet Turner sent Moses Perdue, the new head of APD internal affairs, to the board’s monthly meeting.
“That was most welcome,” said Cristina Beamud, the board’s executive director. “I feel as if he is willing to give the concept of civilian oversight a fair vetting.”
Turner’s stint as interim chief has not been without controversy. On his first full day on the job, he and Reed shook up APD’s command structure, rankling a number of communities. Turner said the moves were needed because of vacancies that had to be filled. Promotions were given to those who deserved them, he said.
Residents in Zone 6 neighborhoods, which include East Lake, Kirkwood, Inman Park and Cabbagetown, were particularly upset when their well-liked commander, Renee Propes, was transferred to the airport precinct. Even though residents complained long and hard, Turner held firm with his decision to replace Propes with Maj. John Dalton.
In a recent e-mail, Monica O’Neal, president of the East Lake Neighbors Community Association, told members Dalton has done a great job so far.
Lt. Scott Kreher, head of APD’s largest union, supports Turner’s reorganization. “He’s put the right people in place for crime fighting,” Kreher said.
Turner’s dream was to be a professional football player, not a cop.
A Grady baby, he spent his childhood in the now-demolished Perry Homes housing project in northwest Atlanta. When he was 9, his parents bought their first home. Turner, the middle child, has four sisters and two brothers.
Turner’s father later owned a service station near West End Mall. For spending money, Turner checked oil and pumped gas. His mother ran Archer High School’s cafeteria. Turner said he regrets that his parents, both of whom died in recent years, did not get to see him become interim chief.
Had he not won a college football scholarship, Turner says he would have joined the Army. While attending Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, he was a star cornerback who went by the nickname “Batman,” said APD Sgt. Melvin Mitchell, a longtime friend who played with Turner. “It was because of the way he looked with his helmet on and also because he could bring the wood — he could hit,” Mitchell said.
Turner left Clark without a degree. “I wasted my time,” he said. (In recent years, Turner obtained his college degree from Saint Leo University and his master’s degree in public administration from Columbus State University.)
“I always wanted to play at the next level,” Turner said. “That was everything.”
When no NFL team called after he attended a tryout camp, Turner had to find a job.
By then, he had met Cathy Reed when she was lost on campus trying to find the admissions office. Turner not only showed her the way, two years later they married. During his senior year, Turner filled out an application in the student center to be an Atlanta police officer but didn’t think much more about it. Ever so often, however, he’d get a call from APD with requests for more information.
When APD offered him a job, Turner took it. One month after marrying Cathy, he became a policeman. A month later, she became pregnant with their first of four children. Their youngest, Thad, played cornerback at Ohio University and, like his father did three decades ago, is trying to get the attention of NFL teams in the upcoming draft.
Turner likes structure and regimen, Cathy Turner said. This includes keeping himself fit and taking meticulous care of his yard (“Although he’s not getting to it fast enough now,” she joked). He makes his well-known oatmeal cookies with carefully measured ingredients, always adhering to the same recipe.
Turner has long wanted to be a police chief. In 2008, he was a finalist to be chief in Fort Worth, Texas.
For now, however, he is considering buying a house in Atlanta and leaving the home in Marietta where he and Cathy have lived for 24 years.
“I think Atlanta’s police chief should probably live in the city, so I may move,” Turner said. “But I’m also not going to be presumptuous.”
Staff writer Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.
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