A note on recent news of Chief Bryant’s resignation: I wrote this entire piece weeks ago and then edited a little earlier this week. Yesterday afternoon I saw the news that Chief Bryant announced his resignation. Here’s the AJC’s coverage. I also appreciated @cqholt tweeting this coverage from Creative Loafing from years ago that reminded me why I knew the name Bryant before recent history. My writing has nothing to do with any of these headlines, Atlanta news just changes quickly.
I’m back with another APD post. We’ve got roads to travel, friends. Curl up with the vice of your choice. Coffee? Bourbon? Weed? I don’t judge. I told you I was going to write this series on what I learned. Well, here’s what I took from the first class. I’m writing this about halfway through the course, so I have some perspective now. You may not like it, but I hope it prompts you to think, question authority, and reflect on what leadership traits you admire in those around us. And I hope you take those questions and ideals and engage in your community, talk to your neighbors, get to know your own LEOs. If there’s one thing the Citizens’ Police Academy reinforced for me is that if we’re waiting for elected officials to make the necessary changes needed for our community needs, we’re going to be waiting a LONG time.
The first class was the best class I experienced, ironically. I would have thought it would be better to crescendo to a grand finale, but the strong opening had sort of an intimidating effect on me. In fact, it highlighted to me my own fear of law enforcement, that I hadn’t yet fully realized. I was initially worried that might be purposeful, but I don’t think it was. Ironically, I think bringing us all together was supposed to be a more amiable way to get to know the officers. The opening night brought all of the Zone Commanders together to dine with us as a class and many introduced themselves to me. The dinner and introductions were kind, and intentionally gracious. You could tell there were efforts being made. Like, errrrbody’s mamma would have been SUPER PROUD of the excellent manners that were on display.
However, for me, this was a little difficult. I had specifically asked about the Covid protocols that would be followed in the class and had been assured that mask wearing and social distancing would be followed. This is the first class I’d done in the city that wasn’t Zoom based. As an immunocompromised person, I take Covid super seriously.
The classroom was packed so tightly on the first night, that I’m not entirely sure everyone had a seat. Funny enough, the top brass sat on either side of me and introduced themselves- Chief Rodney Bryant was on my left hand and Deputy Chief Schierbaum was on my right. The Deputy Chief and I discussed his residence in Midtown and my previous residence there.
My hope is they couldn’t see me sweat, but if they did, they were too gracious of gentlemen to say anything, anyway.
Later in the evening, I particularly appreciated a story Chief Bryant shared to demonstrate how he felt the class could assist the APD. He named repeated calls he had received regarding a vacant property where kids were playing basketball. Chief Bryant pointed out the few options he had as an officer- arrest, or ask the kids to leave- not a likely long term solution. And when he paused for effect before naming what the community members contributed- a new place for the kids to play basketball- I had to smile. My yard is one in which kids shoot hoops. Why this took calling the law to facilitate community conversations illustrates to me what isolated lives we must live here in America now.
The avoidance of people talking to one another as equals seems to create a greater burden on our LEOs which is troublesome, unequal, unfair, and beside the point of their role in the community.
This ish makes me furious.
I do not believe in burdening someone else with problems I can solve. My life is not lived with the ‘phone a friend’ option on speed dial. I fight my own (verbal, ideological) fights, and I have no intention of weaponizing the police against my fellow human.
What’s more, this story demonstrated to me so much of what I’ve found in Atlanta and in the suburbs in my brief sojourn there. Folks who have means work around the challenges. Those who do not have the means cannot work around the challenges and their progress is stymied systematically. I’m a big fan of taking responsibility for one self but I’m also a big fan of being real about culture. Folks with means (doesn’t matter the race) only engage in systems so far as those work for them. If they don’t, they can pay a premium to circumvent these systems. I hate that this is the American way, but here we are.
Implicitly, we like to assume that all families in America, Georgia, Atlanta, are living similar lives- finances, community involvement, awareness of the world and cultures around us. I’m here to tell you that isn’t true. The largest income gap in the nation influences our neighborhoods in a way that is measurable. It also has dramatic ramifications. Some of my neighbors around me have multiple generations living in a home with faulty wiring that leads to fires running rampant in our area. This is a direct result of Atlanta Housing and Code Enforcement (which I’ll talk about more later) not holding landlords accountable as they should. Within these homes, basic furniture of bed frames, tables, couches- whether they are in poor shape or not DO NOT EXIST. I walk into some of my neighbors’ homes and the rooms are empty with the exception of people.
So imagine those little kids showing up to school. How do you think they slept the night before?
The way this plays out in the public space follows a pretty regular pattern: the children of families with means can afford childcare, city programs like Camp Best Friends, and may have rides with other kids’ parents to the nearby park to shoot hoops or join a rec league for sports. But the kids whose parents don’t have those means search for things to do. Maybe it’s throwing stones at the blighted house windows on their street. Maybe it’s testing boundaries of sex and drugs. Maybe they just need a means to inflate their bike tires to ride around on the Beltline, if their parents don’t fear it.
This is where the community should come in. This is where it is my responsibility as a neighbor to provide a space that is welcoming to the people around me to gather, let kids be kids, and fill the gaps that exist. This is NOT the LEO’s responsibility. And before anyone asserts that it should be the parents- cool- but what if they don’t have the knowledge, coping mechanisms, support they need to facilitate a growing child? We have to have bifocal approaches for both the kids and the parents. And to ignore this reality is to ignore the greatest contributors of challenges in our neighborhoods.
As a Fulton County CASA, this was part of my training. The reality is, while a CASA is an advocate for the child, they also often have to advocate for the parent because no one was there for the parent when they were a child. And we all carry our traumas with us, some of us learn how to deal with it more effectively than others so that resilience is within reach. I’ll talk more about this in a later piece as well.
But back to the first night…..
The introductions of the Zone Commanders were interesting- some more than others. Mine was new, so it was really nice to shake his hand. I told him where I lived and he related that he picked up a prom date from one street over. This is what I love about Atlanta- it’s really just another small town. When the PR person introduced herself, she took pride in saying that Atlanta was unique in the state, so when it came time for questions, I asked ‘what does the APD do differently’? I also asked how they relate to their neighboring regional entities. I like when I hear about positive outliers.
“Transparency” was the primary thing the chief shared. Chief Bryant pointed out all the data they collected and released publicly was unique vs. other police entities in the state. Fair, albeit this is also based on budget and population size as well. It seemed sort of an unbalanced comparison to be comparing Atlanta to other cities in the state when it seems more reasonable to compare them to other urban areas of similar size in the nation. I guess thinking small isn’t limited to the Georgia legislature. We Atlantans LOVE saying that Georgia is the Empire state of the South but only when it serves us. When we hold ourselves to the same standards as, say, NYC, out comes this loooooooooooooong list of how we’re soooooooooo different.
Spare me. I’ve heard this enough at the Capitol to tell you that every Georgia town is some special little snowflake that somehow cannot be measured in any meaningful way.
Nonetheless, the discussion of data was of particular interest to the class later. More on that in the next piece.
Chief Bryant pointed out that he had an excellent relationship with the surrounding jurisdictions. There was a lot of discussion about lunches. I have heard about these lunches from other friends who are LEOs. These are pretty much political. I’m not saying information isn’t shared- but I would equate this to the caucus breakfasts or committee lunches I’ve attended working for legislators in the past. It’s a lot of rubbing elbows and good ‘ol boy
padding of egos patting of the back and less strategic planning. Chief Bryant pointed out in a subsequent question that the relationship with Clayton Co. was now positive- that wasn’t always so. He told the class there have been times in the past when APD officers were told not to venture into Clayton Co.
I did not take this moment to remind the audience of the names of Victor Hill & Mitzi Bickers, but the AJC did a good timeline that might refresh folks’ memory. Full disclosure: I consider Kem Kimbrough a friend from our shared time under the Gold Dome. One could not meet a finer gentleman and scholar, as they say. I also don’t count this newfound friendship between the LEO jurisdictions without some wariness, though…something about honor even among thieves comes to mind. Before the end of the course, and in the midst of other challenges I had with the city, the ruling on Mitzi Bickers on March 23rd probably contributed to the general fear all city employees have of putting anything in writing.
I would hope we can all agree that maintaining positive interjurisdictional working relationships is helpful to everyone. In fact, I wish the LEOs could teach our legislative bodies a bit more about how essential positive interactions with different levels of government are to getting real work done and challenges resolved. There are a few parts of this discussion that I hope are happening behind the scenes:
- There is strategic planning across regional jurisdictions to identify areas of need and corresponding resources allocated to those.
- There is reporting up to a state level about what patterns are being seen across the state to look at how crime moves- my bet is we’re seeing an uptick in areas in the belt around Atlanta, but maybe smaller belts around other urban areas in the state as well. Especially as we’re seeing a decline in population growth in Fulton, Dekalb, and Clayton, per census records, covered recently in the AJC.
- How do these interact with national crime rings/gangs/mobs? The private prison system? People migrate for jobs, family, better weather…so how do we see relationships and recruiting form across these geographical boundaries? I have ZERO interest in tracking people à la Big Brother, but I do like to know where meta level patterns exist so they can be precisely addressed.
Ironically, while the city has much discussion of post certified officers in the field, I think these strategic jobs could be more filled by civilians. The beat cop is an invaluable first responder, yet he/she/they need to be supported in strategic ways to make impact rather than just serve as a bandaid for the day. I feel like this is why leadership that’s been in the force throughout their career is essential, but I’m also aware that the longer someone remains in certain areas, the more complacent they may become regarding going against the status quo. It’s a fine balance to strike.
I was surprised to hear Chief Bryant identify that ‘the “toughest” thing he had to do as chief was put men and women out on the street yelling at them’- I’m paraphrasing his comments referring to the protests (which I participated in). He left out the part that the SWAT teams APD posted around the CNN center were covered in the front by Bicycle Cops, then bullet proof shields, dressed in riot gear, and backed by tanks from DNR, presumably purchased with civil asset forfeiture money that contributes to the unequal incarceration of Black and brown folks in our criminal justice system and purchased from the military
through the oppression of other nations (the DOD’s 1033 program). He also left out the part about the Georgia State Patrol bringing in literally bus loads of troopers in riot gear surrounding the Capitol in subsequent days of protest.
The Chief’s remarks allude to the emotional challenge of his officers, yet to say that it was ‘tough’ on his officers omits the part about them being physically armed to the teeth (with lethal, and ‘less than lethal’ force- something I learned in the course).
I am not exaggerating- there were hundreds of GSP officers, along with DNR and others who literally meant thousands of uniformed folks who came into downtown during the protests. I used to know most of the GSP officers at the Capitol. These weren’t those guys. These GSP officers came in with gritted teeth and a chip on their shoulder. I also distinctly remember an armored personnel carrier of some sort parked at the intersection of MLK Jr. Dr. and Northside Dr., in between the statue of MLK Jr.’s outstretched hand and the behemoth that is the Benz stadium.
Chief Bryant did say, ‘There were people on our side who were mad as hell about George Floyd, but their responsibility was to protect the protesters’.
I didn’t tell him that wasn’t my experience in the protests.
I wasn’t in the class to be disrespectful, yet this statement is disingenuous. It is repeated often by folks who use phrases like “the thin blue line” and it speaks to the theory of policing- not the reality. This is the theory we all want to believe in. But the application is very different, depending upon the officer. I don’t judge the LEOs for that difference, but I do judge the Chief for his disingenuousness in this instance.
“WHITE ALLIES TO THE FRONT!! WHITE SHIELD!!”
….was the chant that my husband and I responded to as we moved through the crowd to see the tanks, the riot gear, and the unflinching faces of the LEOs in front of us. I didn’t fear the people at my back as much as I later feared the troopers surrounding the enfenced
shrines to the Confederacy statues around the Capitol in the subsequent days of protest. This wasn’t my or my husband’s first protest. Ironically, we’re pretty sure we have been on opposite sides of certain protests in DC at various points. From a Facebook post I wrote the morning after that first day of protests:
As we walked out and headed toward the Capitol, we noticed a few things: the police had blocked off Centennial Olympic Park Dr. from the other way. The police were closing in on the park. These were all APD vehicles at that point I think. I don’t remember registering any Troopers or Dept of Public Safety. I will be honest, the sight of cops closing in like that made my pulse quicken again.
I mention my fear here because as a woman who finds it strange to be walking closest to the street curb in mixed company, I would argue white women are the most protected class of women/ people barring minors. My interactions with LEOs over the course of my life have both largely been positive and because of my lead foot-if anything, racial and gender profiling has worked in my favor. I have had a few experiences with LEOs that were negative and strangely aggressive toward me that I look back on and wonder what was going on with that officer (and more importantly) what if I had not been so complacent, short, and white? This bubble of societal protection serves no one- me in my lack of awareness nor the others around me who contribute to the delusion.
The level of fear I felt standing in front of those rows of LEOs in front of CNN was a lightbulb moment opening my eyes to the way my Black and brown friends experience life. Feeling like my heart was going to beat out of my chest isn’t a feeling I’m going to forget.
I share this bc I wanted it to be known that the beginning wasn’t violent. I share this to say as a white person, I was afraid of the cops last night. I know in my heart they are there to protect protestors, and normally I thank them during the Peachtree [Roadrace] and prior protests FOR protecting me.
I didn’t feel that way last night.
I have been present in some capacity since 2004 at the Georgia state Capitol. In the past, I would have described the Capitol as an environment where we welcomed people to come into ‘the people’s house’. But that’s not what it was during the protests. It was a fortress these LEOs were protecting- not me and those around me marching. Governor Brian Kemp may have expressed his lack of fear in his gun toting ad on the original campaign trail to the Governor’s mansion, but his need to encase the Capitol in a cage belies his true feelings on security needs. Those LEOs out on the street during the protests weren’t there to protect me. They were there to protect property. They didn’t stand between people- they stood between people and statues, between buildings, and they didn’t respond to people who asked the Black members of law enforcement what their thoughts were.
Their silence was deafening then as the Chief’s words rang hollow to me that night during the course.
You know what was the most striking thing about that first night of protests I remember?
Before the cars burned and the windows broke- the previous Atlanta Police Chief, who stands maybe a few inches taller than me (I’m 5’3”), was standing talking to people in front of CNN. Not the Mayor. The Chief didn’t have a security detail. She didn’t need a press release. She didn’t even call attention to herself. She just spoke to the people she served. NOT the media- the people gathered, angry, around her.
Erika Shields, a white woman (whose own marginalized identity could have perhaps made her a bridge between the sides of the protest), in the midst of the people she is sworn to protect and serve was a striking image that night. She listened more than she talked. And although I couldn’t hear what she nor the pink haired lady to whom she spoke said, the appearance of her that night close to me in the streets and the absence of KLB will never leave me. My disappointment in Shields’ resignation was further fuel for my anger at Mayor Bottoms, who spoke from podiums and governed via press releases rather than the street. As I have the perspective to look back now, ‘pride goes before the fall’ comes to mind.
This was again, only the first class of two months’ worth. There were many more to go. I came home with more questions than answers, and I’ll share those too. At this point, maybe you think my expectations of LEOs are too high. Maybe they are. I hope you recognize my expectations for my fellow Atlantans (and myself) are likewise high as well though. I don’t need leaders who speak from ivory towers. We’ve had enough of those. I don’t need police officers covering for one another’s wrongdoing. I’ll leave that to Clayton County. I’m looking for leadership that serves and protects people- not property. Walk with me for a while, we’ve got a ways to go.