Opinion: Mayor Bottoms, your city needs you

Atlanta leaders must firmly step up in wake of violent holiday.
Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings Monday from the site of a restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. Monday’s cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that saw 8-year-old Secoriea Turner fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta police and sanitation crews finished removing protesters and their belongings Monday from the site of a restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an officer last month. Monday’s cleanup followed a violent holiday weekend that saw 8-year-old Secoriea Turner fatally shot while sitting in a car near the restaurant. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is right; “enough is enough.” She and city leaders should have reached that point before a child’s murder forced their hand.

The City Too Busy To Hate now seems anything but. At this point, we’re in sync with other places that have become flashpoints for frustration and anger that is killing innocent people.

City officials certainly did not create the situation that’s festering in Atlanta and elsewhere. The blame lies much more with an angry nation lurching through a dangerously troubled time of epic divisions, pandemic, economic downturn and long-lingering injustices.

Last weekend’s terrible toll of criminal violence shows why Mayor Bottoms must now tend much more closely to the city she was elected to lead. During the Fourth of July weekend, two dozen people were shot – and five killed – in the city. That shows Atlanta no longer has the luxury of using a hands-off approach that’s allowed some criminals to slyly ply their violent trade amidst peaceful protests. Mayor Bottoms, we need you to assertively step up and lead.

If you don't, others will try to do so, as Gov. Brian Kemp showed Monday in calling up as many as 1,000 National Guard troops to protect state property in the city. This after the Georgia Department of Public Safety Headquarters was vandalized last weekend.

We have to think the best path forward would be if two top leaders whose offices are only about 300 steps apart could collaborate in this time of crisis, but political chasms make that unlikely, it seems. We’re thus left to hope that state and local law enforcement leadership can work effectively together and teach all of us some needed lessons in cooperation.

It’s bitter consolation to know that Atlanta’s far from alone at this point. Murders and shootings have jumped lately in both cities with long, violent histories and in metros that had seemed relatively safe.

To the extent that perception can mimic reality, it’s fair to wonder whether Mayor Bottoms has been distracted by her audition for the vice president slot on the Democratic ticket. Good politicians are often ambitious; nevertheless, the mayor and other leaders now need to step up efforts to lead us through a crisis here at home. The world is watching how well we do that. And lives likely depend on the results.

A first order of business is restoring order in the streets. That’s not mutually exclusive with peaceful protests, we believe, but violent fringe elements cannot be allowed to use this moment as camouflage for their evil intent. Atlantans – especially those in the areas most afflicted by violence either new or long-running – deserve better.

We might have seen this coming. A toxic, bitter brew of contributing factors has been at a rolling boil across this nation for a while now.

A child, Secoriea Turner, 8, was murdered Saturday in Atlanta as an indirect result of all of this. She's not the only victim, but we pray she is the last.

Making matters better will be a long, wearying slog – but it must be done. And Atlanta should boldly lead the way.

Up until this week, city leaders had allowed sketchy elements of a nascent movement to dominate streets around the fast-food restaurant where Rayshard Brooks was killed last month by police gunfire in an incident that itself has resulted in charges against two police officers.

At first, that strategy of giving protesters room to vent seemed to have merit, even as the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot was burned to the ground. The larger goal of working to end questionable killings by police seemed paramount then. Indeed, it must remain on the A-list of difficult tasks before Atlanta and this country, we believe.

That said, it was unfortunate that those harboring ill intentions took advantage of sympathy for a protest movement with legitimate origins. And it proved unacceptable that armed people commandeered a public intersection near downtown and erected barricades to lawful traffic while erratically enforcing some perverse notion of a border checkpoint. That could not stand over the long haul.

Protesting for change is an honored American tradition – murder is not.

So it's appropriate that APD and city workers cleared out the barriers around the now-infamous site on Monday. That action will be unpopular in some quarters, but its' time had come.

Two shooting deaths in one month at the same place should grieve us all – and force thinking about where we are, as a nation “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We seem as far now from that American ideal as we have ever been. Every citizen of this country must resolve to change that. And no city’s better-positioned than Atlanta to begin that charge.

The Atlanta Police Department is key in making that happen. That will be unpopular to say in this time of calls to defund – or curse — the police, but the truth is a necessary offense sometimes.

Now is the time for the best elements within APD – from the command ranks to officers working the streets – to do what they should instinctively know how to do well – protect and serve. Lead, in other words.

Doing that should not – and cannot – hinder the ongoing necessity to find better ways to police communities. Nixonian-era bromides about law and order won’t make us safer now; they’ll just further inflame matters.

Efforts must continue to develop systems intended to prevent future, questionable killings by police and thus enable officers to work more effectively in all of our communities.

APD must prove up to this enormous task. Given the departure of Chief Erika Shields, who left after Brooks’ killing, it’s only fair to wonder about APD’s current effectiveness and leadership, and how that may be adversely affecting public safety.

The department needs strong leadership as much as it needs quality officers who practice sound discernment in each interaction on the streets. Law-abiding citizens – who are the majority in Atlanta and elsewhere – need police to step up and do a difficult job with fidelity and an appropriate assertiveness while also routinely prioritizing de-escalation and persuasion over violent use of force whenever possible. This is not a new idea. A set of principles compiled in the early 1800s around the founding of London’s Metropolitan Police force noted that, “The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”

We’re living that old truth now. And the legitimate protests in Atlanta and elsewhere are intent on making all of America see this point.

The experiences we’re now enduring show that it is unrealistic and impossible to expect police to solve society’s broader woes alone. We endanger ourselves and set up our law enforcement officers to fail by routinely requiring them to attempt to act as social workers, psychologists and a host of other vital societal roles, we believe. The peaceful protesters have a point here. Police can’t do it all.

It’s up to both the governed and our government to figure out better ways of helping people with mental health, substance abuse, homelessness and other problems that too often contribute to violent interactions with police – or civilians.

Finding an effective path toward resolving these issues will save lives. And we believe Atlanta can employ our estimable history and civic skillset to lead the way out of this woeful current hour.

The Editorial Board.