The visit to learn about the SWAT Team was interesting and really engaging. For me, probably not in the way the APD had hoped, but nonetheless, a fair amount of information was shared and (always more important to me) I found what wasn’t shared to be even more interesting. Like the VIC and the Crime Lab, the SWAT team portion was taught on location at the SWAT facility, somewhere around Flat Shoals Rd. off I 20. There was rain that night, so we unfortunately didn’t get to spend much time outside. I would have really enjoyed seeing their grounds and the shooting ranges where they train. I have really been disappointed that we weren’t able to shoot any of the guns we encountered. I’m sure it’s a liability thing, alas. I also was disappointed in not thinking fast enough to ask some particular questions of the officers while I had their attention. I will discuss some of those here.
We were introduced to the Commander of the team, and he took pride in telling us of his 28 years on the force, his being born here in Atlanta, raised in Adamsville, and graduating from Harper High School. While endearing, for me and at least one other classmate, it was also meaningful geography. Adamsville is down MLK Jr. Dr. from me. Many of the kids in my neighborhood play in Adamsville rec league teams. Harper High is now Harper-Archer Elementary School, located off Collier Dr. It has a rich history in the heart of the Westside, blooming during the years following White Flight as a modern and first class center for education-predominantly Black. It became Harper-Archer elementary in 1996 with the decline of the area. This is all to say, the man comes from and knows well the neighborhoods and culture in the areas where the APD
struggles are called the most.
As an aside, within the city there has been a lot of talk about APD having a retention problem. I didn’t find that to be so in the course. The opposite came across to me- some of these folks have been in the force for 20 or more years. I value institutional knowledge in any organization, yet I wonder if this also speaks to why the less experienced officers leave- it’s hard to move up in the ranks if someone’s been there for years and doesn’t want to move. Again, this may be me and my own career analysis being projected.
This SWAT team is full time. They train everyday and train regularly to keep their skills sharp. There are 28 folks that make up their full team-no women, although they emphasized they would like to have female colleagues and have had women on the team in the past. I was surprised there weren’t any female snipers. Women often make excellent sharpshooters. This isn’t to say they couldn’t compete equally in the various other elements of the team, more just that in rifle shooting in the Olympics, women seem to be dominating currently. Each SWAT member goes through three weeks of training yet the reality is that most prepare and start working out prior to the formal training. Following acceptance on the team there is perpetual training as maintenance.
My classmates and I were divided up into groups, my group having one other classmate and a few younger folks who I believe were interns within the APD. I could be wrong. We were a really small group- only four. The presentations were as follows: non-lethal force, snipers, robots, then ‘Megatron’ and ‘BearCat’- which I was to learn were their names regarding the vehicles they drive. There were some questions before we dispersed among the larger group like, ‘are you the only SWAT team in the metro area?’ and ‘Can you be called into other jurisdictions?’ No to both- all of the metro area police departments have their own teams. Johns Creek and Alpharetta have their own teams- north metro team and so on.
I’m sure being surrounded by a militant group of heavily armed folks makes some Atlantans feel safe, or at least perhaps might
Non-lethal force demonstrated foam bullets, pepper pellets, and the guns that fire them. One cannot make it through the actual Atlanta Police Academy without being doused in pepper spray. I learned this fact from a beat officer the year prior. While the class used the term “nonlethal”, the team members made it clear the appropriate term was “less lethal”, as those foam bullets and pepper pellets can in fact cause bodily harm if shot in the wrong spot on a human body. I asked about firing at children. The team members emphasized that they don’t fire at kids, elderly, pregnant women, and will try to separate crowds in other ways that don’t require shooting at the most vulnerable. Makes sense, although in my own experience, I remember encountering LEOs at a protest in the evening. I was walking quickly- almost at a jog, with a mother and her pre-teen. I’ll never forget the smirk on the LEO’s face and the sheer glee in his voice as he shouted after us- “That’s right! You better run”. The child was asthmatic, and might have been in the midst of a panic attack. Their discussion of separating out the most vulnerable made me wonder how they discern that, paces away.
As an aside, that mother is currently in a primary runoff, and I hope she’ll soon be seated in the Georgia House.
There were more snipers than classmates in my group. They showed us the huge bullets that can cut through concrete and they let me pick up and hold the guns. I remember there was some discussion of how/ where they sit in certain situations. I can’t remember now if I asked the question, my classmate did, or if it was just information offered up. I do remember connecting the fact that the snipers sit in a shrouded space, looking out, similar to a duck blind. I wish our group hadn’t been so small. My classmate and I had only a few questions at the moment. While I process things fairly quickly, I think I would have benefited from hearing other classmates’ questions.
It was really difficult for me to process what was being said in the course and the memories I’d had from the streets during the protests. I particularly remember seeing the snipers, though. They were standing on top of the parking decks- two across from the CNN Building on the first night. I believe it’s parking for the Georgia Bar Association. I had a Jeep battery die in that parking deck some years back- sort of a memorable experience after spending some hours there. Additionally, they were on top of a parking deck across Marietta St. from the Georgia Bar, and at the corner- it gave them an eagle eye onto Spring & Marietta Streets. It was a surreal feeling having guns pointed down at me, during the protests. I presume that memory won’t soon leave me.
I wish I had asked the snipers about this, and will forever regret not thinking quickly enough on my feet. They all seemed really open and both the snipers and non-lethal force team members emphasized how they want to keep Atlantans safe…and I believe that to be their intent. I just regret not thinking fast enough to pose the question about how I should feel safe when they point their guns at me? In the course of being a citizen, there will be times when we disagree. I’d like to know how I’m supposed to feel safe when those disagreements may find us on opposite sides of their rifles.
We moved from the snipers to the robotics team. Funny enough, I’ve actually seen one of the robots work before coming to the class. Years ago, someone called the APD about a package left outside my condo building off of Charles Allen Drive. The robotics team came, opened it up, and removed the suspicious package. Some of my neighbors used to tag themselves on Facebook at home, with the location named “Suspicious Package”. (Gallows humor is pretty prevalent in my friendship circles.) There were three different robots- small, medium, and large. The smallest was more agile and deft in its movements. They work together with a vault-like structure to seal the explosive into the vault and then the SWAT team could either take the potential explosives out to detonate it- purposefully- outside, or within the container that was affixed to the vehicle.
“Your neighbors must LOVE you.”
‘Yes ma’am, and it’s gotten even worse- the neighboring HOA requires advance notice of explosions and the explosions are only allowed during certain hours, which is understandable.’
I remember reading about this at some point- that there’s this space where the APD basically just sets off explosives, in the midst of a residential area. And now I’d toured it.
This was also part of the reason why the Community Stakeholders Committee was established regarding the Public Safety Training Facility. I’ve written about that here and here. It’s a great approach to have members of the public’s direct input on the facilities immediately impacting their neighborhood. (This is the theory behind the entire NPU system in Atlanta in fact.) It is problematic when members can vote others off in a majority versus minority situation as has happened with the Cop City Stakeholders Committee. In some recent conversations I’ve had, it’s my understanding that Dekalb essentially followed the APD’s lead on this entire endeavor and the project was not of primary importance to Dekalb’s leaders…until the Committee removed a Dekalb Super’s appointee. Now the Committee has Dekalb’s attention, and it seems the attention isn’t positive.
That night at the SWAT facilities, we were able to walk onto the tactical vehicles, affectionately called ‘Megatron’ and the ‘Bearcat’. The guy leading the tour was super jazzed about telling me about drones and the LRAD. We talked it back and forth and he said there was some concern about using it near the zoo area bc of the zoo animals. This was sort of amazing to me. He seemed to be totally unconcerned about the impact of LRADs in a densely populated area (have you visited Grant Park or the City of Atlanta lately?).
I remember this coming up and speaking with the Grant Park Neighborhood Assn President. (We were both aides to the Georgia General Assembly.) The GPNA President sent a letter to Mayor Bottoms after the neighborhood association passed a resolution regarding the use of LRADs. At the time I even made a presentation to NPU K regarding the use of these to inform others that this is a tactic the City of Atlanta uses. Here’s previous Peach Pundit writer George Chidi’s piece on LRADs in Decaturish around the same time. (George has continued writing, and if you really want to know what’s going on in Atlanta, his substack is one worthy of subscription.) George’s military service enabled him to draw attention to the fact that the US Army at the time had a policy regarding LRADs and use of force, yet the APD and Fulton County (at the time of his writing) didn’t. Let’s hope they do now.
Back outside the vehicle, I asked if this location was what people refer to as the “Old Atlanta Prison Farm”. He smirked, and asked me to repeat what I asked. He said he didn’t know anything about it and asked a colleague if he knew what I was talking about. The other officer said, “oh yeah- that’s not here, it’s on the other side of where the explosions occur, down the street”. The original officer asked me where I’d heard that and I said it had been in the news. It was clear he had heard me and knew more than what he chose to say. It was the only interaction that night that seemed veiled.
Knowing the mess surrounding Cop City/ The Old Atlanta Prison Farm/ the Public Safety Training Facility now, I can see why. Here’s a recent Op- Ed in the Saporta Report.
Another enlightening point of the tour that wasn’t part of the script was the fleet of vehicles. SWAT has I don’t know how many black SUVs or trucks- apparently one for each officer that the SWAT team drives. These are their regular commuter vehicles that have unique security features in each one for securing their guns and tools in case they are called up while at home. In addition to the sunk costs of purchasing the military style vehicles, robots, and vaults for explosives, the on-going insurance maintained for these vehicles and the coordinating gas costs of a fleet of gas guzzles has to be astronomical.
This abundant provision struck me as odd in contrast to the police vehicles I know officers trade off for patrols. It also seemed striking in comparison later when I learned that most officers on their beats will buy their own bullet proof vests and gear because the stuff supplied by the city isn’t as high of quality. I don’t know anything about bullet proof vests, but I do know that if I were in a career where it’s necessary to wear one, I would want the very best. If these folks are willing to step up to serve the City of Atlanta, then they should have the very best protection as well.
It was such an odd evening, overall. I think the APD really wanted us to take pride in the facilities and feel safe. Maybe that was the effect everyone else in the class walked away with, not me. Having a heavier militarized presence around me didn’t make me feel safe AT ALL. It made me feel what Cedric Alexander referred to in his book as ‘occupying forces’. The cognitive dissonance it would require to have to forget the visuals of being caught in the snipers’ sites while standing in front of CNN isn’t yet present. I also won’t ever forget the glee in the officers’ voices that night that encouraged a mother and child to run. I’ve seen the other side of some of the men and women in uniform I met during the Citizens’ Police Academy, and when they aren’t on display I know they don’t all act in the ways the Citizens’ Police Academy wishes to portray them. That normally doesn’t do more than annoy me, but seeing this huge facility, knowing its cost, and that the snipers’ bullets can just as easily be aimed at me, it made me anxious and rather ill.