The events that took place May 29 in Buckhead, other parts of Atlanta and other cities nationwide in response to black individuals such as George Floyd and others dying at the hands of former and current police officers should serve both as a teaching lesson and as an opportunity for more dialogue on racism, an Atlanta Police Department leader said.
On that date, four days after Floyd’s death, a series of peaceful protests kicked off in cities across the U.S., with the social unrest erupting into riots, looting, vandalism and violence in some cities, including Atlanta. Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of the department’s Zone 2, which includes Buckhead, said it “turned ugly” in Buckhead fairly quickly because most of his officers had been called to the downtown area to help with incidents of crime there.
“We had a skeleton crew,” he said. “I have to say if we didn’t have the other agencies who showed up very quickly because of our interagency agreements, we couldn’t have stopped it. We had bricks, rocks, concrete thrown at us, fires being started, gunfire we had to contend with. We were wrapped up in something we’ve never seen before, something I’ve never seen in my 25 years here. A lot of us are wrapping our heads around what we saw.”
Senzer and three of the Atlanta City Council’s four Buckhead representatives – District 6 through 8’s Jennifer Ide, Howard Shook and J.P. Matzigkeit – spoke on those and other issues at the Rotary Club of Buckhead’s June 8 weekly lunch meeting, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They spoke in a panel discussion moderated by Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling.
Both Senzer and Shook said the department wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of crimes that occurred in Buckhead and other parts of the city as officers dealt with both controlling the protesters and stopping others rioting, looting, vandalizing and attacking cops and residents, adding this was the first time peaceful protests had spun off into violence and other criminal acts on a large scale.
“Racial tensions are probably going to exist for a lot longer that government passes ordinances to eliminate it,” Shook said. “But I think the mayor has done a phenomenal job. After that first horrific Friday, things have been much more normal in that things have been handled the Atlanta way, which is peaceful protests.”
Matzigkeit said city leaders must first listen to and understand its residents and then decide what to do about the problems they’re having.
“I will give kudos to our police force,” he said. “Sixty percent of our police force is African American. We need to continue to do more training on policing. But our police force is one of the best ones in the country.”
Ide also praised the department, adding it’s “come a long way” since officers accidentally killed Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman, at her home in a botched raid that forced it to make several reforms and fire some cops involved.
“Some of the changes being called for in other cities have been done here already,” she said. “(The Johnston case) made us rip the Band-Aid off. … It doesn’t mean there isn’t implicit bias.”
Ide added the two officers who were fired for using excessive force to remove two college students from their car during the protests were African-American officers.
Senzer, who’s in his 25th year with the Atlanta Police, said he has a unique perspective on race in his personal and professional life.
“I am married to a black woman,” he said. “We’re going to celebrate our 20th anniversary in August. We’re raising three biracial children who identity as black. My father-in law and brother were founding members of the Black Panthers in Kansas City. … We’ve had unbelievable conversations about what he experienced and how he feels about the younger generation today. We have great conversations in my house about race relations and policing and without getting into my feelings about the police department and whether there’s systemic racism in the police department. …
“I think we have one of the most diverse PDs in the country and one of the most robust training programs in the country. I’ve had the pleasure of serving alongside black, Asian, Latino (officers), you name it. It’s been a tremendous experience for me.”
Race is a subject Senzer discusses with his family on a daily basis, and they talk about how police officers are painted in a negative light by the media and others. He said the key is to establish relationships with all races, something he’s done throughout his time in Atlanta.
“We’re all dealing with this and I think we need to get rid of this implicit bias,” Senzer said. “We all come from our own backgrounds and groups and cultures and it’s all about unknowns. But you’ve got to have conversations. One of the things I did when I started as a young white officer from New York patrolling a mostly black neighborhood is I enjoyed talking to people. I enjoyed speaking to everyone on my beat in the community. It’s not just when police officers are called out to (incidents of crime), but it’s having those conversations just for the sake of having them.”
During the Q&A portion of the meeting, Karla Arriola asked if the city could host some town hall meetings on race relations, on a district- or city-wide level or both. Shook said he would prefer to wait until in-person meetings could be held before hosting these events, but Ide said she’s open to having district-wide virtual meetings.
“We do need to look at the discerning eye of: How do different groups impact on our city?” she said.
Ide added the legislation she and another council member co-sponsored to criminalize organizing, participating in and watching street racing, which the city has cracked down on lately with 44 arrests made in May, actually targets black individuals in a whole new way.
“It never occurred to me that it would be 100% African Americans who would be impacted on that,” she said. We have sent it back to committee to look at (amending) it. … I’m not comfortable in passing a piece of legislation that impacts only one group of citizens or one race.”