In the wake of nationwide protests over police killings of Black people, including Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, two of Buckhead’s City Council members say the city must consider such reforms as rethinking how and when officers are armed.

Councilmembers J.P. Matzigkeit and Howard Shook also expressed differing takes on the Brooks killing and on issues of racism, segregation and income inequality that some protest organizers said Buckhead exemplifies. Matzigkeit said racism is an underlying issue that the Buckhead community and the city “absolutely” must discuss after the protests, while Shook said the neighborhood is “easily stereotyped” as less diverse than it is.

On June 20, the council approved a fiscal year 2021 city budget that includes a $12.1 million boost in Atlanta Police Department funding, to roughly $217.5 million. The vote came with the political backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by last month’s police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and calls to “defund the police.” The City Council and the administration of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had shown some internal differences about how to respond to those protests, which turned into divisions following the nationally controversial killing of Brooks.

On June 12, Brooks fell asleep in his car in the drive-thru lane of a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant in Peoplestown and was accused by Atlanta Police officers of DUI. After he took a Taser from one officer, police shot him as he fled. The case led to the resignation of former Police Chief Erika Shields, a murder charge against the officer who shot Brooks, and large protests during which someone burned down the restaurant. A large number of APD officers reportedly called out June 17 in apparent protest of charges against the officers involved in the Brooks killing.

In the administration, Bottoms declared the Brooks killing unjustified and appears to have cut a compromise with Shields, who stepped down but remains employed at APD. On the City Council, Councilmember Jennifer Ide — whose District 6 includes Buckhead’s Lindbergh, Armour and Brookwood Hills areas — proposed withholding $73 million of APD’s budget pending reform plans, a move reflecting some of the “defund the police” activism. The council rejected the proposal in a 7-8 vote, while also approving a non-binding resolution asking the Bottoms administration to propose a slate of police reforms, a process for which was already underway. Ide could not be reached for comment.

Matzigkeit and Shook were among the majorities that voted against the withholding of funds and in favor of the call for a reform proposal. They discussed their decisions and perspectives in phone interviews after those votes.

Reform ideas

Matzigkeit, who represents western Buckhead’s District 8, said he is glad the council agreed to “reimagine policing” but “stopped short of defunding the police.”

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.(Special)

He said he voted against Ide’s proposal “not because I don’t want reform or don’t want to have a seat at the table, but because I didn’t want to have any question in police officers’ minds about whether they were going to get a raise or have a job or whether we supported them. We have to do both at the same time. We have to reform and reimagine, and we have to support our police.”

Shook, who represents North Buckhead’s District 7, said he thinks the city “would have hemorrhaged a lot of police officers” if the city had backpedaled on “long-overdue and historically large pay raises” that went into effect last year and are credited with boosting the APD ranks.

“I’m grateful, as are the police, that $73 million was not removed from their budget and put in a council-controlled account to be released upon conditions to be determined,” said Shook. “I think that also would have caused a great deal of unrest among the police.”

Matzigkeit and Shook both said that APD’s procedures, especially on use of force, need a thorough review. Shook said he wants more APD officers involved in that review process, and Matzkigkeit said he would look to the Atlanta Police Foundation, a powerful police-subsidizing group led by representatives of major corporations and chaired by Buckhead real estate developer Robin Loudermilk.

Matzigkeit said there’s a “disconnect” between use of force that is technically “by the book” and what the public finds appropriate. Matzigkeit said he wants to consider some type of unarmed response to situations that are more oriented toward social services, citing one commenter during the council budget hearings who talked about fire trucks and armed officers responding to a call about homeless people at a church.

“Yeah, I think we have to explore that,” Matzigkeit said of the unarmed response idea. “The police have a hard enough job. I think that if we narrowed their job, they would be happy to give up some of those responsibilities.”

Matzigkeit also spoke about broad issues related to community policing goals, such as unaffordable housing that prevents many officers from living in neighborhoods they patrol. Most reform ideas will cost more, not less, public safety funding, he said, noting the private security patrols subsidized by many Buckhead neighborhood associations and business groups.

“We have community policing in Buckhead a lot, and residents pay for it. That’s the off-duty police APD patrol,” he said. But, he added, there are ways for the city to “get creative” on paying for public safety improvements.

Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook.

Shook said he would like a review of Tasers, weapons that fire metal darts into a person and deliver an electric shock intended to disable them. He said a veteran police officer suggested to him that Tasers may tempt officers to use force unnecessarily, and also expressed concern that Tasers can be used against officers.

“I’d like to hear experts talk about the extent to which the availability of Tasers might have created the unintended effect of police officers relying on being able to use a Taser in lieu of de-escalating a conflict short of violence,” said Shook.

“The Rayshard Brooks incident also demonstrated … that that’s yet one more weapon, if you want to call it that, that can be taken away from a cop in a fight,” said Shook.

Shook said he believes APD is already doing many things correctly.

“I think one thing this review will show is a lot of the egregious tactics we’ve seen employed by police around the country … aren’t used here and never have been,” he said.

The Brooks killing

While the police killing of Brooks highlights the Taser issue, Shook said there are questions about how it will be judged legally.

“Well, I mean, that was just terrible and couldn’t have happened at a worse time, not that there’s any time for that to happen that’s not terrible,” Shook said of the killing of Brooks. “You know, it’s almost as though the more an incident is captured on snippets of film, the more questions, not the fewer questions, get raised. I think that’s going to be a fairly complicated court matter.”

Matzigkeit said the Brooks killing concerned him, as did the “violence” and arson during the protests afterward.

“It’s horrible. It’s horrible on a lot of fronts,” Matzigkeit said of the killing of Brooks. “First off, a person died and [was] shot in the back. It’s horrible. That didn’t have to happen. And how it got to that place, there’s lots of areas that you could say need to be improved and we have to improve those.”

Matzigkeit also expressed concern about the rapid charges issued against the officers by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who is running for re-election while facing an investigation about the use of city funds to supplement his salary and a number of lawsuits alleging harassment or discrimination. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which routinely investigates police shootings and gives its findings to district attorneys, has said it was not informed by Howard beforehand about his decision on charges.

“That’s equally concerning to me. You have a person who is seemingly acting very, very differently around an election, essentially for political gain,” Matzigkeit said of Howard.

“So there’s a lot of things to be concerned about…,” he said. “And at the heart of it, we all need to put away our prejudices and live together peacefully. That’s much, much easier said than done,” he said.

Buckhead and racism

Since Atlanta’s protests began on May 29, Buckhead has seen several demonstrations. Organizers have frequently cited the neighborhood’s reputation as a wealthy, White and conservative enclave as a reason to protest there, both in general and to make such specific complaints as lingering diversity and prejudice in the area’s famous private schools.

More than 1,000 protesters gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road June 7 to spotlight issues of diversity and prejudice in Buckhead’s private schools. (File)

Shook said he believes such complaints about the neighborhood are wrong. “Well, first of all, Buckhead’s racial demographics, last time I looked, was actually quite close to the national breakdown,” he said. “Buckhead is so much more cosmopolitan than some people think. If you walk half a mile along Peachtree [Road], who knows how many languages you’re going to overhear being spoken. I just look at — my neighbors are from all over the place.”

“Income inequality? Yeah, every city has its Buckhead,” said Shook. But, he added, “A lot of people forget that there are large tracts in south Atlanta that are near mirror… images of Buckhead…. It’s not just Buckhead.” He specifically suggested parts of the Southwestern districts represented by City Councilmembers Andrea Boone and Marci Collier Overstreet as examples.

He acknowledged Buckhead is distinct as one of the Southeast’s wealthiest neighborhoods and arguably the city’s current financial center.

“Well, Buckhead always has and always will have that, the image of being the rich, White part of Atlanta. I’m merely saying, there’s a whole lot more to that story than that sentence,” said Shook. “Buckhead’s always — Buckhead is Buckhead. It’s just probably always going to be easily stereotyped.”

Shook said that, aside from a spree of looting on the first night of Downtown protests, he thinks the local demonstrations “have reflected the, quote, Atlanta Way.” That’s a term for a Civil Rights-era policy of White business leaders and Black activists agreeing on a method of gradual reforms, lack of confrontation, and a focus on business activity when it comes to civil and human rights.

Matzigkeit saw many of those recent protests firsthand. “I’ve attended every single one that’s been at the Governor’s Mansion [on West Paces Ferry Road],” he said. “It ranged from agitators being belligerent and disrespectful — all protected by the Constitution– but really wanting to get arrested, it seemed like, and our police really having to endure horrible, horrible things. That’s one end of the spectrum. And then I saw lots and lots of people, all different ages, all different races, all different political parties, walking down West Paces Ferry together, and all very peacefully wanting change.”

Did that make an impact on him as an elected official? “Oh, absolutely,” said Matzigkeit. “The effect it had on me is, this is an issue that we have to wrestle with and have to address. This is an issue [where] the police are one part of it, but that’s in a way a symptom of a much larger and deeper issue that we have to address as a city and as a country, and that’s racism.”

In the wake of the protests, leaders of such neighboring cities as Sandy Springs have called for citywide and neighborhood dialogues about racism and inclusion. Matzigkeit said that, while coping with the ongoing protests is the current focus of city government, similar dialogues should happen in Buckhead and Atlanta.

“Absolutely. I think that we need to have dialogue, we need to have conversations…,” said Matzkigkeit. “We also need to listen. That needs [to], and must, come next.”

Update: This story has been updated with additional comment from Howard Shook on police reform.

John Ruch

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