Shortly after being appointed as the Atlanta Police Department’s new chief in December 2016, Erika Shields zeroed in on one type of crime that was concerning her.
“Going into 2017, as an agency, we had to have a singular focus, and that was to take down violent crime. So we reconfigured a lot of things, changed tactics, and the department was successful,” Shields said, crediting her leadership team and the rest of the department. “We ended the year with crime down 8 percent, homicides down 29 percent, and most significantly for me, violent crime was down 13 percent.”
Shields spoke on that topic and more at the Rotary Club of Buckhead’s weekly lunch meeting Monday at Maggiano’s Little Italy.
The chief, who has been with the department since 1995, said as the police was successful in curbing violent crime, it saw an increase in vehicle-related crimes. They include cars being broken into to take items in plain sight, vehicles being stolen and slider crimes, where criminals “slide” into an unlocked parked car, usually at a gas station, and either steal items out of the vehicle or steal the car itself.
“For us, we knew this would be difficult if that trajectory remained on par because vehicle-related crimes are really hard to get a handle on for a number of reasons,” she said, adding the department “abolished our auto theft unit four or five years ago because none of those crimes are prosecuted.”
Shields said her tactics are working, though some crimes have risen this year.
“We’re up 2 percent in crime year to date, and (had a) 13 percent increase in theft from auto, 7 percent increase in stolen vehicles,” she said. “What I would say is we’re up 28 percent … in homicides. But we don’t have the same level of heartburn that I did before when I know 68 percent of those people know each other. This is not to kill you all with statistics, but we have to use a framework to figure out where we (place) our limited resources.
“The homicide rate concerns me considerably, but it’s much harder to get a handle on (crime) when it’s inside homes and inside cars. Interestingly … much of it is tied to marijuana, in this day and age of medical marijuana. What we’re seeing with marijuana is it’s much better made and costs more, and crimes are being committed for it.”
As for the department’s strategy on slowing auto-related crimes, Shields said it’s starting to work.
“We had to rein that in,” she said. “We reconfigured and we stood up some folks that are tasked with tackling this, and they’ve done a really nice job. In three months they’ve put a couple of hundred people in jail. They’ve issued over 1,300 citations. They’ve gotten 40 stolen cars, and 27 people were arrested for slider crimes. So we’re in the right area, but we still have our work cut out for us.”
Shields said 51 percent of all crimes the department has dealt with this year are auto-related ones, with just over half of those offenses taking place in Zones 2 and 5 (the Buckhead and downtown areas, respectively). She said common-sense ways for individuals to avoid having their vehicles or items in their cars stolen include no leaving their keys in their cars and not leaving things in plain sight.
As for limited resources, Shields’ speech came a week after the Atlanta City Council approved a 3.1 percent raise for all first responders (both police and fire rescue department employees) for fiscal 2019, as opposed to a $1,000 bonus that was originally planned. The police raises are expected to address an unbudgeted overtime pay issue that was revealed with a city audit whose preliminary report was released in May.
In 2017 the police spent $54 million in unbudgeted overtime, the most among all city departments, to address a staffing shortage, and it has spent the most on unbudgeted overtime pay in all but one of the last five years. Since peaking at 2,004 officers in 2013, the police department has seen its number of officers steadily drop, down to 1,795 last year, according to police data.
“I’m very grateful to the mayor and city council for having recognized the work of public safety, absolutely,” Shields said of the raises in an interview after the meeting. “And now I have to really dig in with the mayor and city council to look at this pay study, so we can into a space that is on equal footing (with) some of our fellow agencies.”
Shields was referring to a study funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation and conducted by Mercer University regarding the police department’s pay compared to other similar law enforcement agencies, adding she hopes the city “can adopt a number of recommendations in the pay study.”
“(Officer pay) is off from top to bottom,” she said of the study’s findings. “If the top pay is still on average $20,000 lower than similar agencies, even if you’ve hired them at the same starting pay, you’re not going to keep officers.”
A foundation spokeswoman said the city staff still needs to be briefed on the study before it’s released to the public and the media, but that meeting is expected to take place soon.
During a Q&A after Shields’ speech, club member Jim Breedlove said, “It must sadden you when a police officer has shot an unarmed defendant, but your department has avoided that issue. What is the secret to that?”
Said Shields, “When I look at that with Atlanta, one of the things that is so unique about it is the history of Atlanta. Atlanta found a way, for all its different communities and interests, to work together years ago. It’s no small feat. Yes, people don’t see things the same way, but to be successful and reach optimal success, we have to work together. The Civil Rights Movement helped with Atlanta.
“(The police force is) 58 percent African American in a city that is 54 percent African American. When you look at our top staff, we have diversity. You’ve got men, women, minorities. … When I have my staff meetings, it is blacks, whites, males, females at the table and there are very candid conversations about race.”
But the bottom line, she said, is fear plays a part in these shootings.
“The biggest thing is when you watch these videos and the decision-making is instantaneous, you see white people are afraid of black people,” Shields said. “They think all black people they pull over have a gun. They’re convinced of it when they come out of the car. … You have to understand the history of policing to get it right in the South.”