Atlanta Police Department Series: Intro

Crime…Atlanta…Police…Protests…Cop City. There’s been a robust discussion in the last few years around these words.  I personally think much of it is both overblown and simplistic, yet I’m also aware my preference for nuance isn’t shared by all. Atlanta has been the easy punching bag of state legislators across Georgia who like to draw attention away from their own district’s shortcomings and hold up Atlanta in an effort to command superiority. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it didn’t smack of white supremacy, condescension, and general lack of knowledge of the city in which I reside, yet here we are. In my own life, dealing with the APD has become a more present reality. Neighbors calling cops on one another- for noise, on kids walking through their backyards, piddly things that make me realize how much people phone-a-cop instead of actually talking among themselves. It’s been a  super weird phenomenon of living in my little corner of the city. So in the hope of educating myself, I signed up for the Atlanta Citizens’ Police Academy back in December to educate myself on the procedures and protocols of the APD. It seemed like the only reasonable thing to do. I like to learn. I would like to learn about the APD. Here was the invitation, open to any citizen of Atlanta. 

Why not?

I’m an extrovert that believes I’m supposed to meet people where they are, no matter what that entails. I’m also pretty basic, so it’s always amusing to me what folks say around me in my WASP-like presentation. I lean into the assumptions folks make about me, and I generally don’t mind being considered dumb. It’s given me lots of opportunities to learn. And so this is how I approached the class- curious, with some information going in, and LOTS of questions. 

In the process of the course, I took notes and asked questions. My subsequent posts will be based on what was shared in my classes over the last two months and my own personal experiences within the city-most recently when I called 911 (twice) to report the theft of my cell phone from my car (not an emergency) no officer responded. LOL! I ended up not needing a police report for filing an insurance claim for my phone and we didn’t file the broken car window as a claim on our auto insurance, so thankfully I didn’t need a report. 

But y’all- what happens to folks in this city who do need responses from APD? Yikes! 

The classes were worthwhile albeit a big chunk of time- three hour long weekly classes for two months. To be able to devote this much time to an educational endeavor, one has to have a certain amount of privilege of free time. The classes were in person too- not the Zoom based stuff I encounter from the majority of city class offerings. The Covid protocols were….not followed…to put it mildly, but that wasn’t super surprising. The course was informative in some ways, yet very clearly I only learned what the APD wanted to discuss. To me, this seems like a huge missed opportunity. I approached this course wanting to learn how to be a better bridge in my neighborhood and to actually learn about protocols and processes that the police use in Atlanta. I naively thought that I could ask reasonable questions and would get answers that reflected openness and collaboration. Transparency was something the Police Chief, Rodney Bryant, emphasized in the course opening. I didn’t find that part to be on offer as much throughout the course, unfortunately, although confirmations from actual reporters tell me that the APD is far more open than other police departments in the metro area. 

A kind reminder here: I’m an opinion writer, not a journalist.

This aversion to answering questions that require more than a simple answer is sort of the biggest challenge I see for the police force. I’m guessing they aren’t a group of people accustomed to being a) questioned and b) questioned with thoughtfulness. The aversion to more than simple answers inherently degrades the ability to build trust, which whether the APD is willing to acknowledge it or not, seems to be a big challenge of LEOs across our country today. During the course I also read neighboring Dekalb County’s Cedric Alexander’s book, The New Guardians: Policing in America’s Communities for the 21st Century. He speaks about trust in this way:

The police are not going away. Without a relationship built on mutual trust, however, the police will function more as an armed patrol force occupying hostile territory than as a part of the community. Individual officers will not see themselves as respected guardians, but as grunts in an army of occupation. The relationship of enemy to enemy is neither desirable nor sustainable in an urban neighborhood. It certainly cannot be expected to produce positive results.

The New Guardians: Policing in America’s Communities For the 21st Century
Cedric Alexander

This statement definitely resonates with me about some of the feelings among my neighbors (and myself at times). The text provided a great cross section of theory and application that supplemented what I learned in class. I would recommend it to everyone.

Unexpectedly, during this process I didn’t just learn about the conflicts between the public and LEOs, I was reminded of the foolishness of separating Georgia off into little tribes of OTP and ITP, north Georgia vs south, when in reality we all desperately need one another, right? However, until regions of Georgia and neighborhoods in Atlanta see one another with the needed mutual respect and admiration, we will be unable to move forward very successfully. Often the city of Atlanta is held up as this urban fearful landscape- I have friends who’ve openly expressed fear about moving here- not because they’ve actually experienced crime, but of this specter of crime that’s discussed so prevalently in the news. So too, the allocation of state resources and interdependency of Atlanta and the state cannot be glossed over- we need one another and will go further together. I’m not so sure though that folks around me- on the street or in the Capitol see it that way. 

It reminds me of a few dates I went on some years back. He peppered me with questions rather than trying to have a conversation. It was a trading of information more than a meeting of minds and it left me feeling like I was being interviewed- not what I was looking for. It implicitly conveyed a power dynamic that he was accustomed to, I suppose (he was an attorney)- I ask the questions and you provide information. What he (and I would assert the APD don’t seem to be aware of) is that this power dynamic is one that is subtly felt and if officers really want to rebuild trust in communities, and if the state and city want to rebuild their relationship that the previous Mayor and current Governor harmed, they’ve got to treat folks they encounter more as equals than inferiors. So too, must legislators around Georgia respect one another as they discern steps forward for our state-the bickering is so tiresome. No one exists within a vacuum and we are all interdependent upon one another.

My motivations, if anyone reading this doesn’t know: I reside in APD Zone 1, which, along with Zone 3, makes up a heavy amount of the city’s crime rate (learned that in the class). It also follows the lines of previous redlining in the city and these two zones have the deepest levels of poverty, albeit in my area, it’s rapidly gentrifying. Here’s a link to George Chidi’s piece where he does an amazing job of lining up census and crime data. If you’re not subscribing to George’s work, you’re missing out. To be clear, I live in the less gentrified portion of my neighborhood. As a result of my experience and life in the city, I have to question: is crime changing or are the folks who commit it being pushed to other areas? And what ramifications does that hold for us? The state? What are the political implications of OTP diversifying and Atlanta becoming more affluent and white?

Pardon my cynicism, but after years of political mire at the Capitol and now at the city level, it’s hard to have optimism for long term solutions vs. just shuffling people and paper.

I get that this knowledge of crime and poverty coexisting is a shared knowledge of the APD-which was refreshing! What I think is unique is that because of the siloing nature of city departments, and the insular nature of neighborhoods across Atlanta, we don’t realize how different our neighborhoods are perceived, policed, and how various situations play out in each. I deeply believe the police do though. What’s more, I think they would be the better informants of policy than some of our current policy leaders. Not because I love LEOs, but first responders can speak to patterns they see. And those patterns reveal things about it that we can’t always discern on our own. I have interacted with the police in Atlanta more since moving to my current home off MLK Jr. Dr. than I have ever before in my life while residing in Atlanta since 2007. More than not, officers in this course knew my neighborhood and can identify streets better than I because frankly, they’re out in them constantly on calls. 

You would think this would translate to fast response times in my neighborhood in cases of emergency, but that isn’t the reality. In my most recent personal experience- the APD didn’t respond at all. The general rule of my neighborhood is that the APD takes 20 mins on avg from the point my neighbors call to get a response. If it’s not an immediate emergency, then it’s an hour wait. For reference of distance, I can get from my home to APD HQ on MARTA in 18 minutes, according to Google maps. I can get to my Zone 1 Precinct location in 8 minutes via car.

…This isn’t new, actually. I remember in undergrad, maybe fall of 2003, driving home one night as the DD of my friends, coming back from a night out at Tech. I was struck by an impaired driver head on, hard enough to crack the axle of my Jeep Wrangler, I found out later. We were waylaid off North Ave, within eyesight of what’s now Ponce City Market, or at that time, City Hall East. I called the police, and waited 30 minutes. I could have walked to City Hall East by that time. My friend called at that point and informed the responding officer that this was a group of “white women ” in the midst of “homeless people” standing in the dark off North Avenue. I remember her emphasizing her fear, and the theatrical terror in her voice. She handed the phone back to me and no lie- the cops were there in 10 minutes. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

White women wielding the police as weapons and their knights in white shining armor is something I’ve reflected upon deeply in seeing the prevalence of videos of white women Karens calling the cops on social media. The videos may be new, the practice of women who look like me, isn’t, and it makes my stomach turn. I didn’t have a name for it in college, but when I heard ‘white privilege’ used in conversation more lately, I knew exactly what it was and how it has been employed in my life.

Now, in my neighborhood and NPU meetings, we have repeatedly asked what can better facilitate response times here and the answer, surprisingly provided by the police officers themselves, is to call multiple times, and strategize among neighbors to call 3-5 times from different neighbors’ phones to get the police’s attention. We’ve been told repeatedly that one call doesn’t get a response. The police tell us they just assume the call may be a mistaken firecracker or exhaust from a car otherwise. The multiple calls are what reinforce reality for the APD.  

Honestly, I was surprised to see officers admitting this at our neighborhood meetings. Yikes!

This response is notable not because of the practice but because we have officers regularly driving on MLK Jr. Dr (multiples of 4 per hour at certain times of the day), Westview Dr., and up and down Chappelle (pronounced Chapel). We have multiple officers regularly at the nearby gas stations on West Lake, Lowery, and nearby Cascade. All of these locations are within a 20 minute walk of my house. We’re not talking about a large area. I recognize traffic is challenging, but watching a police officer on March 2, 2022 a little before 5pm blow by my house driving on the wrong side of the median speeding toward I 20, indicates they a) don’t have challenges bending their no chase policy through neighborhoods and b) their response time isn’t based on prevalence or proximity in the neighborhood. It served as an excellent opportunity to define the term “corruption” vs. “illegal” to the kids, all under age 10, around me: 

When I speed down a road the wrong way, that’s “illegal” when a police officer does it, it’s “corruption”.” 

Some folks are more “equal” than others. The experience prompted me to purchase a copy of Animal Farm for my Little Free Library. 

As a result of the poor response times & high prevalence of general negative interactions with the law, there’s a lot of mistrust of the APD in my streets. Doubly so if the LEO is white. In my area, the city leaders (previous city council member, not APD) ignored my neighborhood for a long time while the APD was a constant presence. I remarked to a neighbor around the first of the year that the presence of police cars here were so much more than what I saw in Midtown, when I lived there. This is somewhat ironic as Midtown is a smaller zone and seemingly has more readily available precincts. That neighbor has lived here since the 80s and said that the police presence was far higher in the past. Now, the challenge is to get officers to respond even when they’re here. 

Let me be clear: I don’t call the law. But some of my neighbors do. 

I am one of those people who has an irrational fear of LEOs, and I can absolutely admit my bias. Those uniforms make my pulse quicken and for the entirety of each class period of the academy, I experienced high blood glucose levels. This is how my diabetic body responds to high stress. I get sweaty, my blood pressure rises- it’s a thing that can be measured. I think it’s the way I respond to authority- happens in government buildings a LOT, TBH. I grew up with parents who sold BBQ tickets for the local Sheriff’s race and the local Police Chief was always supported in our household-more so than the Chairman of the County Commission, in fact. I was not raised to be disrespectful to law enforcement, but I was taught that anyone in a place of authority should be able to answer questions from anyone.

I know lots of LEOs, and would consider several friends. I dated a state trooper previously. It’s something about the combination of the uniform and gun holster that makes me uneasy. It’s not the gun per se, as I genuinely don’t fear guns a great deal (you can thank my dad who hunted often for that absence of fear). It’s something about someone who has the unilateral decision on whether I live or die that flips a switch in me that questions that power implicitly. In the past, and back home in Walton County, I would have said that this was a unifying feeling- the fear of the law and the state becoming too powerful. That isn’t the case now though. It’s been a weird journey- finding more in common with the fears of the kids around me in the urban landscape than the good ‘ol boys I grew up with in the past- these same guys who cut class, snuck cigarettes, and who drank underage. Guys who genuinely forgot and left hunting rifles in the back of their trucks. Like, the ‘f the police’ attitude wasn’t directly stated, but the ‘f the man’ mentality was understood at a VERY young age. I’ve always been a goody two shoes, or a “do-gooder”, as I’ve been called. I’ve also never been a snitch though, and have seen a TON of unequal application of rules enough to want to have a part in changing them. 

Expectedly, in the academy course, there were a lot of strictly positive propaganda talking points from the police force. I found a surprising amount of reluctance to deviate from simple answers and an all out shutting down on specific and thoughtful questions. I entered knowing that this was their attempt at PR, and willfully accepted lines like ‘we want you to become our ambassadors in the community’ for what they are- positive public relations. 

No shame in trying to advocate for yourself-quite the opposite! 

The things I’ve learned from classes like these around Atlanta though is not so much about the subject matter itself, but the instructors and the classmates are usually folks who wield power in different circles across the city. These classmates also serve as helpful insights to how citizens across the zones in Atlanta (there are six, seven, if you count the airport) perceive crime, the police, and their fellow neighbors. 

And Atlanta’s citizens never disappoint.

The APD and many under the Gold Dome do though, and I wanted to understand why. God help me, I believed when Chief Rodney Bryant said he wanted to hear from us and learn from us as citizens. This wasn’t the case though. It was really more about what the APD wants us to learn about them and parrot back. This was…disheartening to say the least. I wanted to believe in them. I wanted to see them as the complicated heroes they probably are. But the nuance was completely missing. It was as if the assumption about our classmates were that we were neither informed nor could we ask decent questions. To be honest, I felt a few times like the course material was purposefully vague to avoid deeper discussion. Towards the end, the presenter of my last class went off on a rant that neither seemed to pertain to the actual lesson and TBH, kinda negated his attempt at endearing the police force to the public. His anger was palpable and reminded me again of how much we miss when we’re yelling at one another versus having a discussion. For all the grandstanding at the Capitol, much of the business of policy is actually hashed out in little spaces around the building- the Waffle House down the street, bars down Memorial or up in Buckhead. The Gold Dome is the place of performance, not policy. And that’s what the academy felt like- a performance. And I wanted the behind the scenes tour.  Either way, I will present to you what I took away from the information shared. Whether it is helpful or hurtful, I’ll leave that for you to decide. Whether Atlanta’s neighborhoods, like Georgia’s regions, can reconcile the mutually beneficial need of her cities to work together vs compete against one another will also remain to be seen. I’ll always advocate for working together though, for as long as I have the opportunity. 

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