Buckhead crime was the big topic at the first of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ series of “town hall” forums, held Feb. 28 at the Atlanta History Center. Police Chief Erika Shields drew applause for shouldering some blame for past crime rates and heaping more on the Fulton County court system. Meanwhile, Bottoms drew boos for halting the city’s jailing of federal immigration detainees, as well as some applause for her Civil Rights-oriented defense.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stands at the podium to kick off her Feb. 28 town hall at the Atlanta History Center. Joining her were, from left, Public Works Interim Commissioner James A. Jackson Jr.; Deputy Chief Operating Officer Joshua Williams of the Renew Atlanta program; Parks and Recreation Commissioner John Dargle; Watershed Management Deputy Commissioner Mohamed Balla; Planning and Community Development Commissioner Tim Keane; Public Safety Commissioner George Turner; Fire Rescue Chief Randall Slaughter; and Police Chief Erika Shields. (John Ruch)

“These crimes are not being prosecuted,” Shields repeatedly claimed about car break-ins and similar incidents she said drive Buckhead’s crime rate. “APD is locking those folks up… We’re the easy one [to criticize] because we’re going to sit here and take the beating.”

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields.

“She oughta be mayor!” exclaimed one of the many residents who applauded Shields’ comments.

For the actual mayor, the forum was a visit to the lion’s den of Bottoms’ former electoral opponent, Buckhead resident Mary Norwood, who lost the 2017 race by a slim margin. Norwood, who recently made a political re-emergence as chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, was in the audience but did not directly ask questions of Bottoms or the various department heads who joined her. In January, Norwood issued a letter calling for the mayor to hold local meetings about crime.

For two hours, Bottoms fielded live and written questions from the audience in an apparently unfiltered format. Sometimes she and her administration drew applause for such efforts as filling more than 14,000 potholes. At other times, Bottoms read aloud from audience notecards containing strong criticisms of herself.

“‘Why did you make your mayoral campaign so racially divisive? That was wrong for our city,’” Bottoms read from one card. When minor clapping was heard, Bottoms merely said, “Alright. One person agreed. I disagree.”

The town hall crowd packed a 400-seat auditorium at the History Center, and Bottoms said at least 50 people showed up and could not fit inside. The format involved city department heads giving brief updates about their programs; the question-and-answer period; and an opportunity for residents to meet staff members of various departments at tables elsewhere in the building.

Crime concerns

Department heads were supposed to speak for two minutes each, but Shields made no effort to avoid crime as the elephant in the room and gave comments at such length she at one point joked to a timekeeper about seeing “which one of us has a gun.”

Shields said that APD was not doing a great job in Buckhead’s Zone 2 patrol year starting around two years ago, especially on the challenging crimes of car burglaries by criminals driving into the neighborhood from elsewhere in the city or metro area. Now the police are doing a better job, but Fulton courts are letting too many defendants out to commit more crimes, she claimed.

Amber Connor speaks in support of boosting police pensions and court time compensation at the Feb. 28 town hall. (John Ruch)

“It’s no secret we, the Atlanta Police Department … have struggled in what we call Zone 2, Buckhead space, for the last, probably, 18 months. And it’s gnawed away at us,” Shields said.

She drew applause with her blunt admission that APD’s earlier Buckhead policing efforts were “a failure, and it wasn’t OK, and it wasn’t acceptable.” Police grew increasing worried that a criminal would kill a burglary victim in a confrontation, she said, especially since guns are items often stolen in Atlanta car break-ins.

Since then, APD moved specialty units into Zone 2 to crack down, and local crime is down 5 percent in the first two months of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, Shields said. Bottoms recently secured a major police pay increase, which Shields says is boosting morale in the short term and will boost the short-staffed force in the long run. And APD just announced a plan to shift some police beats to make Zone 2 smaller with the same number of officers, so they can focus on patrolling the core neighborhood.

“I know that when you’re the victim of a crime, when your neighbor’s the victim of a crime, you don’t give a damn about my numbers. I got it,” Shields said. “But I have to measure the effectiveness of our tactics and the crime rate is the best way to do that. [A lower rate] doesn’t mean we’re satisfied. It doesn’t mean we’re done. It means that what we’re doing is working, that we’re arresting the correct individuals.”

The ongoing problem, Shields claimed, is that the Fulton District Attorney’s Office is not prosecuting car-related crimes and Fulton judges are often granting bond to defendants with long criminal records or other obvious issues. She called for the public’s help in pressing for reform in the county system, which drew sustained applause, including a standing ovation from City Councilmember Howard Shook.

In part, she got applause because many attendees are already involved in such efforts after hearing from Shields and Zone 2 commander Maj. Barry Shaw in recent community meetings. Facebook-based crimefighting groups like Concerned Citizens United are involved in new program to monitor judges’ decisions, and City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit recently met with top Fulton judges to learn about the system and its challenges.

Some local crimefighting advocates spoke at the meeting. Amber Connor, a well-known organizer of crime meetings, called for a boost in police pensions and for officers to be paid or given compensation time for testifying in court; Bottoms said resources may be too tight at the moment. Another Concerned Citizens United member said the group had been trying to get a meeting with Bottoms for over a year without any response; Bottoms would not commit to a personal meeting, but said her office would check on some type of scheduling.

ICE and the city jail

Bottoms told the crowd that she understands crime fears. “I’m not a stranger to crime…,” she said, describing being victimized by a “slider” thief – someone who snatches items from vehicles left unlocked at gas stations — and how she lost a nephew to a mistaken-identity gang-related murder.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

However, she was heavily booed when she mentioned her executive order last year that ended the practice of housing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in the city jail in exchange for fees. Such detainees were moved to other metro area jails. In part, it was a policy clash between a Democratic mayor and many Republican audience members in a time where President Trump has made undocumented immigration a hot-button issue. And some residents indicated they thought Bottoms’ general plan to turn the jail into more of a social services center means criminals are left to roam the streets, which she and Shields said is not true.

“I signed [the executive order] because I did not feel that the city of Atlanta should be complicit in the family separation that was happening at the [Mexican] border,” Bottoms said, referring to ICE’s “zero tolerance” treatment of some undocumented immigrants that Trump began, then ended amid intense controversy. Her explanation gained more boos but also some applause.

Asked later whether Atlanta is a “sanctuary city” – a term generally referring to limiting local government involvement in federal immigration enforcement – Bottoms said “no.” Instead, she called Atlanta a “welcoming city… [to] people who are looking for a better life, whatever label you want to attach to that.”

Bottoms added to stronger applause, “It’s who we are as a city. It’s in our DNA as a city… We are the cradle of the Civil Rights movement.”

Bottoms also mentioned her signing of an ordinance that eliminated cash bonds for people charged in Municipal Court with petty crimes, which has reduced the city jail’s inmate population. The intent is to avoid jailing people who simply cannot afford bail on minor charges. Shields says APD never sent people accused of felonies to the city jail and that it has been primarily “something of a mental institution, a rehab facility.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.