OPINION: The hunt for a new Atlanta police chief looks like an inside job

March 15, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta Mayor, Andre Dickens (right) Police Chief, Chief Rodney Bryant (left) exit the press conference after talking about how AtlantaÕs homicide detectives have made arrests in 72% of this yearÕs killings on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Speaking at a joint news conference at AtlantaÕs public safety headquarters, Mayor Andre Dickens and Chief Rodney Bryant also vowed to hire more police officers and double down on efforts to curb street racing across the city. Atlanta police have investigated 33 homicides since the start of the year, up from 24 through this time last year, records show. But homicide investigators have made arrests in about three quarters of those cases, Dickens said, praising the department for Òcracking down on violent crime.Ó ÒI want to stress to the would-be offenders out there that if you think you want to commit a crime in this city, you might want to think again,Ó Dickens said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

caption arrowCaption
March 15, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta Mayor, Andre Dickens (right) Police Chief, Chief Rodney Bryant (left) exit the press conference after talking about how AtlantaÕs homicide detectives have made arrests in 72% of this yearÕs killings on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Speaking at a joint news conference at AtlantaÕs public safety headquarters, Mayor Andre Dickens and Chief Rodney Bryant also vowed to hire more police officers and double down on efforts to curb street racing across the city. Atlanta police have investigated 33 homicides since the start of the year, up from 24 through this time last year, records show. But homicide investigators have made arrests in about three quarters of those cases, Dickens said, praising the department for Òcracking down on violent crime.Ó ÒI want to stress to the would-be offenders out there that if you think you want to commit a crime in this city, you might want to think again,Ó Dickens said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

It’s time for Atlanta to hire a new police chief. It’s a big, hard, important job and Mayor Andre Dickens has announced he’s embarking on a national search.

Then he will most likely hire someone local, probably even someone already getting a W2 from the city.

Why do I think that? Well, it’s the Atlanta Way.

Since 1982 (that’s 40 years for the math-challenged) Atlanta has had seven chiefs. Just one, Richard Pennington, came from the outside. And lots of people around town still complain about him.

Last week, in a press conference marking the pending re-retirement of Chief Rodney Bryant, the mayor said: “I guess I’m looking for a chief who knows Atlanta, who loves Atlanta, who understands the police force that is here but is also ready to bring in innovative solutions to get ahead of crime and get out there and do this with the 21st century policing that we want to do, which is related to community policing and crime prevention.”

Yes, that is a lot in one sentence.

Councilman Dustin Hillis, head of the public safety committee, tweeted, “I’m confident our next chief is already here amongst our current APD executive staff.”

I asked Hillis to expound. He said hiring someone from the outside could damage department morale. And it ain’t great now.

He’d like to see someone who’s younger and could unite the ranks. “They need stability,” Hillis said. “They haven’t had that since Erika Shields left.”

caption arrowCaption
Overtime spending spiked under former Mayor Kasim Reed, right, and the police department accounted for the bulk of the expenses, a city audit found. Chief Erika Shields, left. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Overtime spending spiked under former Mayor Kasim Reed, right, and the police department accounted for the bulk of the expenses, a city audit found. Chief Erika Shields, left. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

caption arrowCaption
Overtime spending spiked under former Mayor Kasim Reed, right, and the police department accounted for the bulk of the expenses, a city audit found. Chief Erika Shields, left. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Chief Shields was a career APD officer who was respected by fellow cops but was pushed aside by the previous mayor after the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in 2020. That led to a Wendy’s getting burned down and the city purposely backing away from mayhem around that area, which led to more shootings and death.

Shields was tough but progressive and landed a job in Louisville, which had its own simmering racial controversy — the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

Bryant, who had retired previously, was a warm blanket for former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who later became a lame-duck mayor, leaving Bryant as largely a caretaker.

I talked with one of APD’s white shirts who said the force has lost its swagger. The commander, who did not want to be named, would like to see someone pulled up from the ranks and (sort of) joked that, “I think every deputy chief has put in for the job.”

There are six deputy chiefs and one assistant chief, Darin Schierbaum, a 20-year veteran. Schierbaum’s name came up more than once in the discussions I’ve had, as did Deputy Chief Carven Tyus, a 25-year APD vet who heads the community services division.

Another name that popped up more than once was South Fulton Chief Keith Meadows, who once headed APD’s homicide unit. He said he has neither applied nor been called by the city but did not seem disinterested in the job.

“I’m not used to seeing APD like it is now,” he told me. “It’s always been a leader in the industry. But it hasn’t been like that lately.”

Lt. Kevin Knapp, who heads the police union, is also a fan of hiring from within. But whoever is picked “needs a strong number two and a strong administrative staff. We need someone who listens because (the chief) is not out on the street. The beat cop needs to be put on a pedestal now.”

Whoever they hire would need to be a Recruiter in Chief because the department is waaaay beneath its 2,000-officer complement. The department told me there are 1,616 cops, including 126 recruits attending the police academy or still waiting to attend.

Knapp waved off that number, saying, “We are hemorrhaging right now. There are under 1,400 officers answering 911 calls or investigating crimes.”

caption arrowCaption
Eldrin Bell, former police chief of Atlanta, with his son,Justin Guarini, a contestant on "American Idol," at a Fourth of July parade in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Eldrin Bell.)

Eldrin Bell, former police chief of Atlanta,  with his son,Justin Guarini, a contestant on "American Idol," at a Fourth of July parade in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Eldrin Bell.)

caption arrowCaption
Eldrin Bell, former police chief of Atlanta, with his son,Justin Guarini, a contestant on "American Idol," at a Fourth of July parade in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of Eldrin Bell.)

Lou Arcangeli, a retired APD deputy chief said, “departments go through cycles of change, chaos, stability. Change, chaos, stability. The department needs stability.”

That means most likely hiring from within the extended APD family, he said. ”The advantage of that is they know Atlanta,” he added. “They have knowledge of the history and the struggles and the civil rights history. And the politics.”

The department’s “organizational malaise” must be addressed, he said. The two most effective chiefs in the past 40 years, he said, were Shields and the somewhat legendary Eldrin Bell, a hard-driving street cop with an almost playboy persona. A headline greeted his 1990 appointment, saying: “Eldrin Bell’s no choirboy, but he’s a worthy gamble.”

Arcangeli said Richard Pennington, who came from New Orleans in 2002 with some good ideas, like computer-driven enforcement. But he ended up being an “absentee chief,” he said.

Arcangeli was put on a search committee when Mayor Kasim Reed came into office in 2010 and the panel came up with three names for chief. George Turner was not one of those names, but Reed picked him as chief anyway.

“He went with comfortable,” said Arcangeli.

I spoke with former DeKalb County Chief Cedric Alexander, who came to that force as an outsider. Later, he was picked to head Chicago’s troubled department but was unpicked when cops there complained and the mayor went inside with his choice.

“There is no data saying inside or outside makes a difference,” Alexander said. “What you need is a charismatic leader more than ever.”

Departments across the country are troubled and almost all of the large forces are losing cops and having trouble recruiting a younger generation that is not tied to jobs, especially policing. That is what faces the next chief. “It’s convoluted, it’s complicated and the old modality’s won’t work.”

Happy hunting, Mayor Dickens.

About the Author

Editors' Picks