Officials: Atlanta police morale at 'all-time low'
In the wake of protests, firings and criminal charges, police and city officials say officers don't feel valued
ATLANTA — Eight officers face criminal charges. Five have lost their jobs. A police chief popular with the rank and file has stepped aside. All in a span of two weeks.
Upheaval within the Atlanta Police Department has plummeted morale to unprecedented depths, said Dave Wilkinson, president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation. It’s worse now than in 2011, when then Mayor Kasim Reed excluded public safety officers from raises awarded to about 3,000 city employees, he said.
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Wilkinson said. “Commanders will tell you the same thing. (Officers) just don’t feel valued.”
The foundation announced Thursday that all of the city’s officers will receive a $500 bonus, provided through private donations, for the long hours logged during the weeks of protest that continue throughout the city.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms acknowledged the sour mood within APD in a televised interview Wednesday.
“Across the country, morale is down with police departments, and I think ours is down tenfold,” she told CNN.
As the mayor was speaking, APD was attempting to reassure citizens that the department was still able to handle 911 calls after “a higher than usual number” of officers failed to report for duty.
The move followed District Attorney Paul Howard’s announcement that he was bringing criminal charges against the two officers involved in a fatal shooting just five days earlier at a downtown Wendy’s.
“I have to assume many of those officers who walked out won’t be coming back,” said Atlanta Police Union representative Ken Allen.
It wasn’t so much that officers Garrett Rolfe, since fired, and Devin Brosnan were charged but the speed with which the decision was made, Wilkinson said.
“They feel as if they’ve been denied due process,” Wilkinson said.
Typically, police shootings are investigated by the GBI, which spends two to three months before turning over findings. Prosecutors will often follow up with their own investigations.
The GBI was not informed about Howard’s decision prior to Wednesday’s press conference, the agency said.
In many cases, Howard — facing a hotly contested runoff against his former chief deputy — has taken years before deciding whether to prosecute the officer.
The urgency shown in the Wendy’s shooting and another recent incident in which six APD officers were charged in the violent arrests of two college students just days after it occurred has many officers looking elsewhere, Allen said.
“There are lots of people looking for new jobs,” he said. “Howard is endangering their well-being.”
APD has confirmed eight officers have resigned over the last few weeks. Allen said he knows of at least 19 others who plan to. And that was before Rolfe and Brosnan were charged. Rolfe was booked Thursday on 11 counts, including felony murder, and is being held without bond. Brosnan, charged with aggravated assault and three counts of violation of oath in the same case, was booked Thursday and released on a $50,000 signature bond.
Howard, first elected in 1996, has made prosecuting rogue officers a cornerstone of his campaign. He has claimed, without supplying any evidence, that his opponent, Fani Willis, received the police union’s endorsement after promising not to pursue criminal cases against officers. Willis said that’s untrue, and questioned the speed with which Howard announced charges in the Brooks shooting.
“Why did he move faster than GBI?” she said in a social media post. “He did not do it to seek justice.”
Retired APD deputy chief Lou Arcangeli said officers he has talked to are frightened.
“They are afraid of losing their freedom,” he said. “This is unprecedented.”
Howard said he has been able to reach quick charging decisions due to the significant video evidence not available on most cases. He also said he determined 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks posed no threat to the safety of Rolfe or Brosnan.
“He followed every instruction,” said Howard, describing Brooks’ demeanor as almost jovial. “He answered every question.”
Chief Erika Shields’ decision to vacate her role as the city’s top cop also has damaged morale, Wilkinson said. Shields was popular both with officers and the public, striking a balance between the needs of both factions, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum.
“She’s just the kind of chief I’d be looking for if I was leading the search for Atlanta,” Wexler said. Shields remains with the department in an unspecified role. Bottoms has appointed 32-year APD veteran Rodney Bryant as acting chief.
“My advice to him is act as if you’re the chief of police, not the interim chief of police,” Wilkinson said.
Bryant has yet to speak with reporters. In 2011, he was suspended 15 days without pay for giving preferential treatment to former Mayor Reed’s brother. Bryant, a precinct commander at the time, was found to have intervened on behalf of Tracy Reed following a pair of traffic stops.
Whoever ends up with the job permanently will face a transformational period for APD and law enforcement everywhere.
Wilkinson acknowledges changes are coming. He said the foundation will outline a comprehensive plan for reform in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, APD officers are physically and mentally exhausted, he said.
“What I fear most is losing 30 to 40 officers because of low morale,” he said. “They’ve had to put up with a ridiculous amount of harassment. They’ve been cursed at, spit on. But a vast majority of the community supports them, and we need to show them we appreciate all they do for the city.”