How police can get it right

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner is building a diversified department that's less reactive and more humane that could offer lessons after Ferguson. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Chief George N. Turner stands with commanders in the Atlanta Police Department on January 15, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia.

It’s 9 a.m. on a drizzly January day, Atlanta is already thrumming, and Police Chief George Turner is facing, once again, questions about whether the “noble profession” he loves has lost its legitimacy. As his top brass meet for a weekly management meeting at police headquarters in downtown Atlanta, they recount the most serious crimes of the past week – two murders, six rapes, and a spree of carjackings. This segues into a discussion of how to prepare for the next protests about police brutality, which have been going on regularly here and across the country since a white police officer shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Mo., last August. 

The chief knows who most of the organizers of any demonstration would be. He has their names and cellphone numbers, and they have his, an exchange he made to improve communication and to try to keep the protests peaceful. It’s an openness policy with drawbacks: After some of his officers arrested protesters disrupting shopping at a local mall over Christmas, one of the organizers gave out Chief Turner’s number, and he was suddenly inundated with protest calls from across the country.

The chief’s main concern on this day is whether demonstrators plan to disrupt the annual Martin Luther King Jr. march. But more deeply, chants of “black lives matter,” he says, are a message that has come to affect daily police work: a female officer in his department who says she recently shot a man who was stabbing someone hesitated before pulling the trigger, she says, because she thought about the Ferguson protests. 

Where to strike the balance between using potentially lethal force and holding back is something that beat cops and chiefs are struggling with across the country in the wake of the most searing debate over police tactics in a half century. Top cops such as Turner want to make sure that their rank-and-file officers are using the necessary force to keep the public and themselves safe, but they also want to avoid the excessive policing practices that have stirred racial unrest and frayed police-community relations nationwide. 

It’s a fine blue line that some experts think Turner is walking as well as any chief in the country.

Over the past five years, Turner has helped change the culture of a force that was reeling from misconduct scandals and the stern reprimands of federal judges. He has dramatically diversified the face of his department, discouraged racking up petty arrests that fall disproportionately on minorities, tapped the power of big data to institute preventive policing, and tried to create a more humane force. While critics still believe the Atlanta Police Department (APD) has a ways to go, Turner, by many accounts, has created one of the more professional departments in the United States

“For many years, we’ve had reactive, traditional policing, including here in Atlanta, which distances itself from the community, and where there are quotas for tickets and arrests, and that is a mistake,” says Robert Friedmann, a criminal-justice professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “The citizenry is not stupid – they know when they’re being harassed.”

In contrast, Turner “came in with a vision to move the department forward in terms of community policing, in terms of improving morale, and [to residents] he really portrays a very good balance of being inquisitive, wanting to learn, and wanting to make a positive difference,” he says. “He listens, and he cares.”

In January, President Obama established a task force aimed at increasing “trust and transparency” between police and the communities they serve. It was in response to controversial police shootings in Ferguson; Albuquerque, N.M.; Cleveland; and Staten Island, N.Y., as well as the retaliatory murder of two New York police officers in the wake of the Staten Island incident. What’s happening here in Atlanta could prove instructive for other cities as the nation undergoes a boisterous rebellion on the streets – as well as a quiet revolution in tactics and technology in precinct houses.

•     •     • 

Turner maintains the gym-toned carriage of a football player, which, in fact, he used to be. He played cornerback for Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University, and was good enough that he thought he might play in the National Football League. But a contract never materialized. 

So Turner, the son of an Atlanta gas station owner, decided instead to apply to the APD. He was given a nightstick, a pair of handcuffs, and keys to a patrol wagon. He spent five months picking up drunks and seeing “a part of the city I had never even thought existed,” he says.

Turner is unusual for a cop. Unlike many US police officers who have family members with law enforcement or military backgrounds, Turner had no connection to badges or M-16s before joining the force. He admits he gets queasy at shooting scenes, and says he would likely never have made it as a homicide detective. He credits much of his success to the tutorship of former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, for whom Turner ran security and was a personal bodyguard.

“What I took away from Young is how he dealt with people, how he took everybody seriously,” he says. “That is a big reason why I’m here now.”

But when Turner took over the top job in July 2010 (he was interim chief for six months before that), he faced the trust-wrecking aftermath of two incendiary incidents: the 2006 shooting of a 92-year-old woman, Kathryn Johnston, by a rogue drug strike force called Red Dog, and the 2009 raid of the Eagle Bar, where Atlanta officers used derogatory slurs as they pinned homosexual men to the beer-soaked floor. 

Among his first acts as chief, Turner disbanded Red Dog, fired the officers who lingered on the payroll after the two scandals, and hired a new liaison with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. He appointed Atlanta’s first openly gay deputy police chief. And while not setting quotas, he made sure that his evolving force represented the diverse and dynamic population of the city itself. Indeed, more officers have either been fired or resigned after violating department policy under Turner’s watch than under any other chief in Atlanta history.

As he set about to transform the department internally, other forces were shaping law enforcement from the outside. The country was emerging from a hyperaggressive era of policing that was rooted in the war on drugs of the 1980s and ’90s. 

In the 2000s, cities experienced a dramatic drop in serious crime, which posed new challenges for police departments: They had to look harder and harder for people to arrest, amid expectations from the public to keep crime low, which meant cracking down on people for lesser infractions. Suddenly, SWAT teams were conducting raids on illicit poker games and unlicensed barbershops.

“Even though crime has been down dramatically, the political rhetoric and public policy hasn’t caught up with that,” says Sam Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. “We’re still caught up in the ‘war on drugs, war on crime’ mentality.” That has led, he says, to a sense of isolation in many urban neighborhoods, especially among young men of color, who have borne the brunt of mass-incarceration policies.

Many departments also became more militarized after 9/11. They found themselves not only fighting crime but also helping to protect the nation from the omnipresent threat of terrorism. This eroded the friendly cop-on-the-beat culture that had flourished under the community policing movement.

At the same time, the “broken windows” theory of policing was rapidly gaining ground. Its premise was that stamping out small crimes would make even tough neighborhoods more livable, eventually leading to a reduction in more serious crime. By most accounts, it worked, but at a steep cost: a sense among African-Americans, in particular, that the police had unfairly targeted them on behalf of the well-heeled and powerful. The police, in their eyes, had become bullies with batons and bullets.

“There has been an erosion of trust and respect between law enforcement officers and the communities they protect, particularly in communities of color,” Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, testified to Mr. Obama’s policing task force in January. “Similarly, the law enforcement officers are growing more distrustful of the citizens in many communities because of an increase in violence that targets law enforcement officers.”

Turner’s response to all this has been to largely abandon broadly applied crime-fighting tactics, such as stop-and-frisk searches aimed at small-time drug users and the ticket quotas that cops are often expected to fill. Instead, he takes a more targeted and malleable approach, channeling resources to meet the most pressing needs of the moment.

This means deploying a variety of different teams to address specific complaints. One unit of particularly physically fit officers, for instance, might be enlisted to chase down young car thieves, while a “quality of life” team will focus on panhandlers. Turner created an 18-member violent-crime unit to dispatch to especially troubled areas. It helped lower violent crime in one northwest Atlanta neighborhood last year by 40 percent. “We’re working smarter, not harder,” Renee Propes, an APD deputy chief, said recently.

Part of working smarter involves allowing beat cops to focus on gathering information rather than just busting people for petty crimes. Key bits of information are then passed to the senior brass, who try to identify neighborhoods that act as “crime colleges” for kids. 

“We need to be more focused, and allow intel and data to lead us to real crime hot spots, and never, ever disregard the conversation with the community,” says Turner. “In our encounters, it is critical to understand the humanity and culture” of each individual.

Beat officers seem to like the idea of working with the community rather than just reaching for their handcuffs all the time. “Believe it or not, cops don’t wake up every morning excited about locking someone up – that’s not why we get into this line of work,” says Officer C.J. Murphy. 

•     •     • 

Another dimension of Turner’s approach is visible inside a glassy downtown office building, in a room that looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Lt. LeAnne Browning is sitting in front of a giant screen filled with pictures from camera feeds across the city. 

“No, we will not be watching the Super Bowl on that,” says Browning, a self-deprecating former detective.

Funded by Atlanta’s wealthy Loudermilk family, the Video Integration Center (“VIC”) takes in live streams from 3,400 different cameras around the city, most of them privately owned. The system is equipped with a sophisticated search function. It can produce a list of leads, including the mugshots of suspects, even before a detective arrives at a crime scene. It’s an example of how Turner, with the help of the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, is banking on cutting-edge technology to help him deploy officers more efficiently and avoid confrontations with the public. 

Along with Los Angeles and a handful of other major cities, Atlanta is also using a predictive policing system, called PredPol, that analyzes crime locations and other data to anticipate where larcenists and burglars might strike next. The system produces daily maps with 500-square-foot “red boxes” that suggest where something is about to happen. Police dispatch officers to the areas and encourage them to interact with residents. Property crimes dropped by nearly 10 percent in parts of the city where PredPol was tested, while crime in other areas rose between 1 and 8 percent. 

Like other cities, the APD is also moving toward using body cameras, which offer their own promise, and problems. A now-famous study in Rialto, Calif., showed community complaints dropped by 60 percent after police started wearing the cameras. But they can also make cops feel as if they are under constant surveillance, and, even with the omnipresent eyes, investigators can’t always tell what happened in a controversial shooting. 

Technology is “not a panacea,” Turner says. “The only way to make it work is by melding good old-fashioned police work with the technology.”

•     •     • 

Underlying his comment is another truism about policing: While chiefs can shape the culture from the top, it’s the officers on the ground with guns on their hips who determine much of the tenor of police-community relations. And officers here, like many across the country in these fraught times, are struggling to find the right balance between caution and safety.

One is Neil McCay. After wrestling with the heater on one of the APD’s oldest cruisers, he eases out of the precinct parking lot  and rolls through one of Atlanta’s more socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods. As he puts it, it’s a place where “junkies and crack dealers” live next to middle-class people chasing careers. The crime here is mostly property related: “smash and grabs” from cars, in which thieves break windows and take whatever they can, usually from unsuspecting outsiders.

An 11-year veteran of the APD, Mr. McCay has to daily navigate a complex set of emotions: He’s out here cleaning up society’s worst messes, which he is happy to do. But, like many cops, he has to find a way not to devolve into cynicism. In his case it involves a simple palliative: gardening. He has a small plot at his house in the suburbs and puts veggies up for the winter.

The key to keeping your mind healthy as a cop, he says, is to get away from the culture, and reboot. But divorce rates, alcoholism, and suicides are far higher for cops than the regular population. Some, he says, become adrenaline junkies, addicted to action, which can be as destructive as a street drug.

In a surprisingly blunt comment, he says he agrees with what many protesters were saying after Ferguson and other questionable police killings. “Errant cops make us all look bad,” he says. “But I don’t agree with the protesters’ tactics. I don’t see how burning up your own neighborhood does anybody any good.”

Good police work, he notes, is all about attitude toward “customers” in need of “service.” “The way you talk to someone makes all the difference between them cooperating or getting in your face,” says McCay.

•     •     • 

Those are comments, no doubt, that Turner would applaud. In his attempts to mold the department, the chief has encouraged his officers to adopt practices that neighborhoods support. He personally attempts to stay in communication with those who don’t always like the police, such as the post-Ferguson protesters. And when excessive force cases do arise, he says he tries to keep the investigative process as transparent as possible. 

Yet, even with these efforts, mistrust of the APD still runs deep. The Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which was reformed after the Kathryn Johnston shooting, saw complaints against APD officers – mostly for false arrests and use of derogatory language – double from 2012 to 2013. (They have since leveled off.) 

Samuel Lee Reid II, executive director of the independent board, says some of that spike was likely due to an outreach effort to make citizens aware that they can complain about police behavior. Overall, he says, community reaction to Turner’s era has been a “mixed bag.” 

“Believe me,” Mr. Reid says, “there’s distrust of city government all around. There’s distrust of whether [the review board] will do the right thing ... and there’s distrust that the police department isn’t going to discipline anyone even if people complain.”

Still, as Turner tries to fashion a more “humanistic” department, he also has to be mindful of the climate within which he’s making changes. In 2014, the number of police killed by gunshots – one-third of which were “ambush” attacks – jumped by 46 percent nationally. It’s a reminder that a chief’s first responsibility is to protect his officers. 

On this day, after canceling a lunch and stopping by to say happy birthday to one of Atlanta’s oldest citizens, Turner pulls into Grady Hospital. He’s visiting an officer who broke his leg during a foot chase with a suspected thief. Two years ago, Turner lost two colleagues in a police helicopter crash during a search for a missing child. A female officer was hit by a car and killed during a traffic stop on the Interstate.

“The toughest part is not being able to stop to grieve properly,” he says. “You have to look strong.”

While the chief initially agrees to allow reporters to tag along to his hospital visit, he emerges grim-faced from the officer’s room and explains he is in bad shape. The media will have to stay out. “They can’t make the pain stop,” he says. “His mother is with him.”

He returns to the room and closes the door.

•     •     • 

Late in the day, Turner attends one more meeting. It’s a roundtable about new procedures to deal with transgender crime suspects. Some 50 community members watch an APD documentary showcasing its gay officers, who tell moving stories about acceptance and career liberation. 

The video epitomizes how Turner has decided to shake up the status quo at the APD. Part of his gambit is to make the job more inviting to all kinds of people for purposes of both community relations and hiring. Unimpressed, the transgender activists push for more from the police, and the debate expands to include the semantics of body searches of transgender suspects and the legalities of transporting them – big issues in the community.  

At one point, Officer Murphy, the LGBT liaison, urges the stirred-up audience to consider the progress the APD has already made when it comes to gay rights. “You have to remember that this is the Deep South, and you’re talking to a black, female, lesbian police officer,” she says.

“Trust is hard when you’ve experienced discrimination,” counters the panel moderator, Robin Shahar.

Taking his leave early from the meeting, Turner zips his chief’s jacket against the rain. It’s obvious his work with Atlanta’s gay community is far from done.

“This is hard,” he sighs.

It’s not clear whether he’s talking about the antipathy from the audience – or the job of a police chief in post-Ferguson America.

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