In Atlanta, city wrestles with call to transform policing
A group talks about global warming at the At-Promise Center Southside in Atlanta. Atlanta Police Foundation founded and manages the center as part of its citywide program to prevent and decrease youth crime. (Carlos Gonzalez/StarTribune)
ATLANTA – Volkan Topalli stopped at Home Depot in this city’s tony Buckhead district just to pick up two bags of potting soil.
But when the 55-year-old Georgia State University criminal justice professor, who studies urban violence, saw some young people darting around the store that Saturday evening in May, he sensed something was up.
Suddenly, four gunshots echoed and a car peeled out. As Topalli pulled out his phone, a bullet tore through his left forearm.
The father of two took cover with a cashier. As blood gushed from his wound, an Atlanta cop, one of his former students, made a tourniquet.
Within hours it became big news and a metaphor for Atlanta’s crime spike: Even criminologists are getting shot!
As Topalli has healed, Atlanta’s conversation around policing has shifted, from last summer’s push for police reform that led to calls for defunding the department to this summer’s commitment by city leaders to increase the budget and hire more officers to address an uptick in violent crime.
Policing nationwide is facing foundational shifts since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But it’s not like crime stops while policing recalibrates.
Here in Atlanta, the rare American city with a majority Black police department, crime is the top issue in November’s mayoral election, and the city’s political discussion remains charged. One faction agitating for defunding police has planted its flag against a proposed public safety training facility, while another, fearful of the crime spurt, has organized a movement for Buckhead to divorce from the city and form its own police department.
“It’s very serious, what’s going on in Buckhead,” said Bill White, CEO and chairman of Buckhead City Committee. “Street gangs want to assert their authority, and the rest of us can go to hell.”
Although Buckhead, a commercial and residential district in north Atlanta, has less crime than any part of the city, a citywide and nationwide jump in crime has created a pervasive fear. A few miles from where Topalli was shot, metal detectors were installed at the upscale Lenox Square shopping center after a security guard was shot in June. Despite enhanced security, a patron was shot weeks later.
“That kind of shooting scares everyone,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. “It doesn’t really matter what your crime statistics are.”
But even with a bullet lodged in his arm, Topalli’s nuanced views on crime and police remain the same. He sees Atlanta’s and America’s argument as two poles talking past each other: Left-leaning activists want less policing and a different style of it, while right-leaning activists say officers need freedom to do their job and stop crime.
Topalli wishes people could realize there’s a common-sense middle ground.
“There is a way to do more effective, humane, strategic kinds of policing that would satisfy people on the left while at same time doing things strategically and more effectively that would satisfy people on the law-and-order side of things,” he said. “Training. Recruitment. Twenty-first-century rules for police.”
Everyone’s goal should be transforming police, he said.
“When we think of police as the one and only and most important source of law control, that’s the type of policing we end up with: keeping our head above water,” Topalli said.
“Do less cops equal more crime? Research shows that isn’t true. It’s not about the total number of cops. It’s about the kind of policing you do.”
Though certainly not as dramatic, Atlanta’s past 15 months mirror what has played out in Minneapolis.
As the Twin Cities burned after Floyd’s murder, demonstrations and riots roiled Atlanta, too.
Eighteen days after Floyd was killed came a high-profile Atlanta police killing: A 41-minute interaction between two officers and 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks. Brooks had been intoxicated and asleep at the wheel at a Wendy’s drive-through. After he fought police, stole one officer’s Taser and aimed it at another, police shot him in the back.
Like Minneapolis, Atlanta debated defunding police. But the City Council last summer voted 8-7 against a measure that would have temporarily withheld $73 million from the department until it enacted a plan for reform.
Like Minneapolis, Atlanta police speak of a morale crisis. The department remains 400 officers short of its capacity of 2,046 officers, a two-decade low. The day after Brooks’ killing, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms fired the officer who shot him. The officer was also charged with felony murder. (The firing was later reversed by the Atlanta Civil Service Board; a trial date has not been set.) That led to a “Blue Flu,” where more than half of Atlanta’s police force called in sick three days in a row in protest.
Like Minneapolis, any news on Atlanta police is politically charged. Its City Council has twice delayed voting on a $90 million public safety training facility; the vote is now scheduled for next month. Meanwhile, it approved an increased police budget with plans to hire 250 more officers despite opposition from activists.
And like Minneapolis, Atlanta has seen violent crime rise. As of Aug. 1, the city’s homicide rate was 58% higher than in 2019, and aggravated assaults were up 22%. (Numbers aren’t uniformly higher compared with the year before COVID; crimes like burglary, robbery and rape are all down.)
“We have to do multiple things at one time. What people want to know is, ‘What are you doing about crime, and how are you reorganizing and reimagining the Police Department?'” said Police Chief Rodney Bryant. “And they need to see both of things done simultaneously.”
Local leaders say this moment must be put in perspective. Yes, crime has risen, but it’s far lower than a generation ago. Atlanta’s most violent year was 1986, with nearly 17,000 violent crimes. Last year, the city saw fewer than 3,400 violent crimes.
Joyce Sheperd, a Black City Council member who chairs the public safety commission, got into politics through post civil rights-era activism. But when activists showed up at her house in a working-class Black neighborhood in June to protest the new training facility, she found it naive.
She knows systemic racism has hurt her community, and she says police reform is desperately needed. But she doesn’t think “these white guys in my yard” know her community.
“If we took money away from the Police Department in the Black community, we’d be in deep trouble,” she said. “Black folks here aren’t saying what the white folks are saying. We have a handful who are radical like that. But my legacy residents, they’re saying, ‘We’re with you.’ I don’t run from things I think are right.”
Finding common ground
Not far from Sheperd’s home in south Atlanta, Kamau Franklin parks his car and walks by an empty lot.
A road sign has “RIP Rayshard” spray-painted on it, but the Wendy’s where Brooks was killed last summer has been razed. The fenced-off scene bears no resemblance to the memorial that’s sprung up in Minneapolis near where Floyd was killed.
After Brooks’ killing, the Wendy’s burned. Activists took it over and protested for weeks — they wanted a peace center dedicated to Brooks — until 8-year-old Secoriea Turner was shot and killed nearby. She was a passenger in a car that turned around near a barricade erected by protesters, some of them armed.
Franklin, founder of Community Movement Builders, which organizes around police brutality and gentrification, just shakes his head.
“The city used this as a reason to clear this area and shift the narrative and get folks out of here — not to deal with the real concerns people have with police brutality,” he said. “The city was always anxious to sweep it under the rug.
“[But] remembering Rayshard Brooks is more about understanding the dynamics of what’s happening in this community, a poorly resourced community, a Black working-class community, that needs services and needs ways to have power over the property and institutions.”
Franklin hopes last summer’s protests spur a holistic look at what plagues the community’s relationship with police: cycles of poverty and desperation and violence.
Three miles north, amid downtown skyscrapers, the head of the Atlanta Police Foundation sings a surprisingly similar tune.
Dave Wilkinson worked in the U.S. Secret Service before leading the foundation, which connects Atlanta’s businesses and philanthropies with police. But Wilkinson, too, said policing must be transformed — officers must be guardians, not enforcers. That starts with human connections in high-crime communities. His foundation’s goal is to make sure that Atlanta police are invested.
Several years ago, community leaders identified crime among young people as one of the city’s biggest problems. Police did a good job with enforcement, and community organizations such as the YMCA did well with crime-prevention programs. What Wilkinson saw missing was helping youngsters already in trouble.
“What if we went into the most crime-ridden areas of Atlanta,” he said, “and built out a youth diversion program?”
A few years ago, the foundation opened its first At-Promise Youth and Community Center. A second opened this year. Judges can refer youth offenders. The centers also help expelled students.
The privately funded centers, which cost $5 million, offer GED training and workforce development. Officers mentor kids, and police recruits make regular visits. Recidivism among the centers’ first 1,500 kids is extremely low — 4% in the first three years, according to the foundation.
The foundation also offers incentives to police to relocate to high-crime neighborhoods, buying land so officers only pay for home construction at cost. In return, officers become a community presence and more invested, mentoring kids, attending neighborhood meetings and submitting monthly reports.
“We believe all this is the secret sauce to changing the culture of the Police Department and making neighborhoods safer,” Wilkinson said. “This is why you don’t hear about defunding police in Atlanta neighborhoods.”
Atlanta is branded as a Black mecca. But even having a majority Black police department has not eliminated tensions with police. Those tensions have been evident for at least 15 years, since a 92-year-old Black woman was killed by undercover police after officers entered the wrong home in a drug raid.
But Atlanta’s journey of the past 15 months — from protests against police to a community more supportive of them — shows a common ground: police culture reform without defunding police.
“We’re all in on this culture of community service,” Wilkinson said.
“Officers [who volunteer at the At-Promise Centers] come out of there changed as well. They say, ‘I used to see these kids as the bad kids I was arresting, but now I see them in a different light.’ It’s life-changing.”
This story is part of a collaboration with the StarTribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.