Opinion: Don’t defund policing, reform it

The City of Atlanta is at a dangerous crossroad. Decisions have to be made and the consequences cannot be overstated.

In the midst of a global pandemic and a severe economic recession, we are now experiencing deep-seated social unrest due to high-profile incidents, captured on video, of police brutality and discrimination toward Black people in Georgia and across the country.

In the past month, in the aftermath of protests and riots, eight Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers have been fired and indicted, one for felony murder. The police feel they are under threat, with no support from City Hall and local government. The result has been a passive approach to policing in Atlanta, which has led to a disturbing and dramatic rise in violent crime and lawlessness.

This rise in violent crime and lax policing is not sustainable. We must come together as neighbors and find common ground. We must fight systemic racism in law enforcement and root out bad cops, while at the same time support our police officers who do their job the right way (the vast majority) and protect the public.

First, we must unite as a community with one voice and one purpose – protect the public.

Second, we must admit that systemic racism does exist.

It is nothing new to Black families. We have been dealing with discrimination in law enforcement for generations. My husband and I and have had “the talk” with our children about how to react when interacting with police officers. Every time my children leave the house, I still have an instinctive fear they will encounter a biased police officer.

In the past, most charges of discrimination from police were dismissed. But now that video is ubiquitous among the population, those accusations can no longer be dismissed.

Seeing the horrors of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and others have finally shaken up our country to the realization that something has to be done.

These incidents have led to sustained public protests insisting on change now and demanding that we finally live up to the ideals of freedom and equality etched in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

Unfortunately, some of the local protests turned violent, resulting in theft, looting and damage to public and private property. This is never acceptable and must be condemned. Those who engaged in criminal acts must be held accountable.

This reaction to police brutality has led some to advocate for the defunding of police. I do not share that opinion.

Words have meanings. There is a saying in the political world: if you have to explain your message, then you have the wrong message.

The meaning of the word “defund” is to prevent from continuing to receive funds.

Quite simply, we cannot cease to fund the police. In fact, my constituents want more police, not fewer. My constituents want to know that their children can walk to school or play outside and be safe. Senior citizens need to know that police will respond if there is an emergency and that public safety is a priority in the city of Atlanta.

Instead of “defund the police,” we must “reform policing.”

That is the path we must pursue in Atlanta.

So, what are we doing locally to reform policing? Mayor Bottoms has convened a Use of Force advisory council to examine and improve our APD Use of Force policies.

The local reforms that should be implemented are not new. Until now, we have just lacked the political willpower to impose them. They are:

  • New training to address unintentional discrimination and systemic racism in the APD
  • New policies and procedures on body-worn cameras to improve officer compliance
  • More accountability and transparency on police misconduct, including making public police disciplinary records
  • Expand the Atlanta Citizen Review Board (ACRB) so it can receive complaints from citizens and have authority to conduct independent investigations
  • Create a transparent platform to receive and store submissions from the public of video footage that shows violations of Use of Force Policies
  • A ban on choke-holds
  • End no-knock warrants
  • Greater diversity of the police force
  • Greater focus on Neighborhood Policing

For decades there has been talk about Neighborhood Policing. But we have never really implemented it. Now is the time. We need a real strategy that will focus on APD building ties with people and families in our in communities, creating trust between police officers and the public. There needs to be personalized policing, where the same officer patrols and works in the same area on a permanent basis. Public safety is a shared responsibility and neighborhood policing will help us achieve that goal.

Now, in order to reform policing, there must be collaboration with the state and federal government. We must all be partners.

The federal government must end qualified immunity, whereby rogue police officers are protected even if they violate another person’s civil rights. The Congress must also put a stop to the increasing militarization of the police. The military should not send tanks and weapons of war to local police departments. That type of weaponry only leads to further alienation of the police officer and the people they are supposed to protect.

The state of Georgia must also reform and update laws around the appropriate use of deadly force and guidelines for what police consider “criminal.” This involves nonviolent violations of the law, low-level drug enforcement, and social service matters, such as homelessness, poverty and addiction. These are the areas where black and brown people seem to be targeted and criminalized at an enormously disproportionate rate than whites.

We are at an historically important time for the city of Atlanta. A crisis like this can create a great opportunity for us to work together in unity to finally address systemic racism in law enforcement, reform policing, and build a better, safer Atlanta. Let’s seize the moment!

Marci Collier Overstreet is an Atlanta City Council member, representing District 11.