Atlanta's Police Chief Strives To Polish Tarnished Troop Image
ATLANTA — ONE of Beverly Harvard's mottos hangs on the wall behind her desk and reads in white capital letters: JUST DO IT.
Ms. Harvard, the chief of the Atlanta Police Department, points to it when commanding officers approach her about embarking on a certain task. "They say, 'I get it' and go on out," she says.
In 1974 when Harvard first joined the police force, ordering police officers to "just do it" or giving other commands was almost unthinkable for a woman, never mind a black woman. The Atlanta Police Department, like many other law enforcement agencies across the country at the time, was embroiled in racial and gender battles. Black and women recruits often faced discrimination in hiring and promotions.
Today, those battles for the most part have been won in Atlanta, and Harvard is proof of the transformation. She has served as head of Atlanta's police department for 15 months, the first African-American woman to lead the police department of a major city.
Harvard has handled her share of challenges in her first year on the job with a low-key style of leadership and a dedication that often keeps her in the office 12 hours a day, seven days a week. She is considered a calm, matter-of-fact leader who is pleasant, but tough when needed. Harvard and her force of 2,300 officers and civilians are battling Atlanta's high crime rate and overseeing a mammoth security plan for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
Harvard has also had to respond to and investigate incidents that have put the Atlanta Police Department in a negative spotlight. This fall, the department was shaken by a corruption scandal that involved 11 officers accused of demanding money from drug dealers in exchange for protection. And in the last week, the department's image has again been stained by charges of police brutality stemming from a tragic shootout in a motorcycle shop that resulted in one death.
"[Harvard's] immediate challenge is coping with the image of the department," says Robert Friedmann, professor and chairman of the criminal justice department at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "So far she's handled both very well, relatively low key and trying to avoid the emotions around it."
Colleagues describe Harvard as conscientious, competent, and a good communicator. Even potential critics such as the Police Benevolent Association and the Fraternal Order of Police in Atlanta had no public comment on her tenure.
In an office decorated with floral prints, photographs of her daughter in grade school, and police badges, Harvard is talkative and down-to-earth as she reflects on her role as chief.
The Macon, Ga., native wound up in the police force after betting her husband $100 that she could become a police officer though she was not of Amazon proportions. Seeking to prove him wrong, she marched down to the department and signed up. Before she knew it, she was on her way to wearing a blue uniform, eager to pursue policing as a career.
Her first assignment was as a patrol officer walking a high-crime area at night. But, she says, her husband "hasn't had any regrets."
Harvard, who holds a sociology degree and a master's in urban government and administration, rose through the ranks, including a stint as deputy chief. Her biggest surprise about the job as top cop has been the international and national requests for her time. She says her greatest lesson so far "has been that you have to have a really tough skin."
One of Harvard's main initiatives has been to increase community policing, which she views as a way to curb crime, establish close ties with neighborhoods, and involve the public.
SHE refuses to dwell on crime statistics citing Atlanta as one of the nation's most violent cities. FBI statistics issued in '95 rank Atlanta fourth in violent crime among cities of more than 250,000.
"I feel better in gauging how people feel about their safety based on what they're saying," she says. "That's why often I will just ask people, 'Do you feel unsafe?' ... We could get the numbers down, and it could not change at all ... how safe a person may or may not feel."
Atlanta's crime rate has declined over the past year; however, the numbers are consistent with a declining crime rate in cities across the nation and cannot yet be attributed to Harvard or the police department, experts say.
Harvard views her greatest achievement so far as giving officers a feeling of stability and fairness in the department. "I felt as a new police chief that while I've got to deal with external things - crime is No. 1 - you also have to deal with those internal issues with police morale," Harvard says. "If I didn't do that first, I can just forget trying to have the kind of officer out there that I want."
But reforms may be hard to bring about given the atmosphere of entrenched attitudes, says Louis Graham, chief of Atlanta's Fulton County department. "That's not to say anyone is bothering her, but she has to have a free reign to do it," he says. "She most certainly possesses the ideas."