Opinion: We all need good police on our streets

GBI investigating if APD was asked to withhold public records
GBI investigating if APD was asked to withhold public records

Atlanta Police Department morale is dangerously low. Even before recent tragic events, the APD was chronically understaffed, underfunded and plagued with recruitment and retention issues. The situation is now much worse. To be clear, when trust between police and the community is violated, consequences must be purposeful, predictable and consistent. And we must prevent bad actors from entering or remaining within police ranks.

But in working toward these essential goals, we should be careful not to condemn the whole of law enforcement. That approach causes officers to perceive that their many sacrifices are meaningless to us. During our national reckoning about racism and violence, calls to defund or disband law enforcement have contributed to a difficult atmosphere in which to achieve reform.

APD officers wear uniforms so that they all look the same. But officers are not all the same, nor is every police department the same. As interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant accurately stated in June, the APD is “not a department known for flagrant abuse, hate or injustice.” In our efforts at police reform, we must acknowledge that most APD officers follow the rules and are motivated by a sense that they are doing good for our city. When they run toward danger, their reward is the idea that we appreciate and support them. That concept has been shaken.

Dennis G. Collard
Dennis G. Collard

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

We are in the midst of a national crisis of violence that policymakers must honestly address. Police work is a super-heated crucible, in which officers regularly deal with horrors that would keep most people up at night. We expect them to respond efficiently to violence and conflict in our city that is often barely manageable. Citizens call 911 at even the hint of a disturbance, and are unforgiving in their criticism if they perceive police response to be inadequate.

When a bad character is about to discharge a gun, rob a store, burglarize a home or batter their spouse, we must be realistic about the necessity of police as a vigilant deterrent and as our public safety first responders. Criminals do not go on holiday when the police pull back. And we cannot expect the best efforts of the police if we do not support the well-intentioned public servants among their ranks.

Sir Robert Peel, the “father” of modern British policing, said “[t]he Police are paid to give full time attention to duties that are incumbent upon every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence.” The same is true today. Here in Atlanta, the public and the police must see each other as being mutually responsible for the same goals.

As acknowledged in the Use of Force Advisory Council’s interim report, “[t]he APD in tandem with non-profit [organizations] ran ~70 unique community engagement initiatives in the past year to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the community.” New efforts to reach out to the Black community are underway. Better resources to address issues like mental health and homelessness are long overdue. Where crime is high, so is police interaction with the community. Thriving neighborhoods are safe neighborhoods, where police activity is lessened. So we must commit ourselves to creating opportunity in communities of color, as a critical component of reform.

In police work, the possibility of injury or death is ever present. Like all of us, police officers are human and therefore imperfect. But none of that changes the fact that there can be no bad actors among the ranks of law enforcement who use force when they can rather than when they must. And so, it is time to honestly address any aspects of police culture, policies and law that lead to harm.

As we work on a new generation of progressive policies, we must be mindful of the messages that we are sending to the hundreds of Atlanta police officers who do right by us every day. Those good cops feel separated from us right now. If we do not find a way to repair their morale, we will be unable to recruit and retain the kind of officers we need in our great city.

Dennis G. Collard is a former police officer, practicing attorney and resident of Midtown Atlanta.