As I’ve said, it’s the Atlanta Way. Since 1982, there have been eight chiefs, and only one of them didn’t bubble up from the ranks — Richard Pennington. Hired in 2002, he was an innovator with crime data but ultimately became very unpopular. The city has since continued to draw from the APD well.
This time, everyone seems to favor Schierbaum, who has been with the department for 20 years and has steadily climbed the ladder to success. He received kudos from Buckhead to Bankhead, from department critics to its biggest backers. They say he’s smart, compassionate, humble, data driven, has cops’ backs but is also good with the community. He’s white, but also gay, so that box is checked in the diversity calculus that is Atlanta politics.
What’s not to like about him? Although everyone likes the new manager before the season gets underway.
Dickens argues Schierbaum is not a new manager, that he’s already taken a bite out of crime during his chief-in-waiting status.
“He always delivers it straight and uses data and best practices to steer this department,” Dickens said when announcing Schierbaum’s permanency. “At the end of the day, we found the right candidate who was already serving in that post.”
In an interview, Dickens told me there really was a big-time search, only to find out the one he wanted was right here all the time. The mayor noted Atlanta has been an incubator for officers to learn the job here and then head off to chief elsewhere. So why not keep one here?
Dickens appreciates Schierbaum’s “innovative spirit and high energy, like myself. . . He’s talking numbers like I’m talking numbers.”
During the press conference, the mayor noted that the chief’s summer initiative focusing on “gangs, guns and drugs,” cut the number of homicides 29% compared to last year. The number of people getting shot was down 26% and robberies fell 14%.
Being a numbers guy, the city’s Data Geek in Charge knows numbers can be sorted many ways. I looked at a broader slice — the week Schierbaum came on as interim, May 31, until October 22, the last week data is available. During that time, homicides fell 3%, aggravated assaults dropped 23%, robberies 5% and rapes were down almost 120% compared to last year.
Overall, crime during that period is up slightly, at 4%, driven mostly by car break-ins. That’s a non-violent crime — usually — but a man was shot to death last month outside Manuel’s Tavern trying to stop such a break-in.
Schierbaum leads a force with about 1,500 officers and about 125 more in the training academy. The flow of retirements and cops quitting to go elsewhere has slowed down. One cop recently told me the fields are not greener in the suburban forces, where officers live under the microscope of insistent superiors. Many are returning to Atlanta.
Schierbaum, 51, grew up in Johnson County in rural Southern Illinois where he served on the sheriff’s department and came to Atlanta “because I wanted to work in a big city.”
The new chief comes across in press conferences like a circumspect Fortune 500 executive discussing business strategies, logistics or company opportunities.
In a short interview, he spoke about a “collaborative nature,” the “public trust,” ethics, “community engagement” and, of course, public safety.
“You can’t use a sledgehammer to fight crime,” he said, adding that most of all, you have to be there. “I won’t lead from a desk or from behind a keyboard. You have to be present to win.”
Howard Shook, a decades-long councilman who represents some of the city’s toniest neighborhoods, said of the pick: “My socks are rolling up and down. Great choice. I’ve never run across a candidate with this much council and rank-and-file support.”
Shook added: “He was a tour-de-force when APD came through (a city council meeting) for budget review.”
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com
Councilman Antonio Lewis, who was elected last year and represents several low-income neighborhoods, said, “I like this chief. He’s the perfect guy for Atlanta right now. It’s important we attack crime, not people. He understands people.”
Lewis recalled that Schierbaum recently showed up at a community organization event held in a majority-Black neighborhood. Even so, one of the organizers chose not to have his photo taken with the soon-to-be new police chief.
“This chief understood,” Lewis said. “He could have been angry. He wasn’t. There was no ego.”
Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, knows Schierbaum. “He seems to understand that policies must change. It’s not easy. But you don’t take the job because it is easy.”
“The rest of the U.S. looks to Atlanta” because its civil rights history, Rose said. So his tenure will be very public.
One longtime cop told me he liked the new chief’s approach to reducing violent crime and summed him up thusly: “He’s a evaluator of talent. I think he’ll make changes. I haven’t heard one bad thing. He don’t do stupid things.”
Nothing stupid. Could be a plan.