A mostly White audience attended the city’s first step in a racial dialogue on Oct. 1, four months after the mayor suggested it. Police Chief Billy Grogan gave a presentation of police procedures and policies and took questions, but the event was not advertised as a conversation on race, and it was up to residents to bring up any problems of structural racism.
Grogan said he saw no problems of structural racism in the Dunwoody Police Department, which city officials have echoed about the city as a whole — though they said they’re willing to listen to other viewpoints. Experts have suggested that Dunwoody’s 2008 incorporation, like that of other metro Atlanta suburbs, was rooted in racial segregation, which founding council members deny, and the city has faced lawsuits about possible police racial profiling and violating federal fair housing laws.
Neighboring cities have admitted to having problems with racism — now and during incorporation — and taken steps to address it. Brookhaven created a Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission to suggest possible policy changes. Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said “race was a factor” in the city’s creation and has already completed a series of Civic Dinners community meetings in which residents said they still see gentrification and social segregation as issues.
“Racial [issues] had nothing to do with anything when it comes to [incorporation],” said City Councilmember John Heneghan, who also served on the founding council, in an interview. “It was about efficiency of taxes and that we could do the services better. End of story.”
City officials do not think the government is representative of the diversity in the city but say it’s up to people of color to apply to city positions for them to get involved. Mayor Lynn Deutsch said she’s been having conversations with community members and business owners to encourage more diversity.
Deutsch attended two Black Lives Matter events earlier in the year, both hosted by activist Lydia Singleton-Wells. At those events, Deutsch said structural racism in healthcare is responsible for COVID-19 disparities among races, and she said she would work on representation in the government and a citywide conversation on race.
Singleton-Wells, who attended the Oct. 1 meeting, said in an interview she didn’t expect the racial dialogue to be more explicit and noted there were only two people of color in the audience.
“We need more creative ideas on how to bridge the gap between law enforcement and the Black and Brown community,” said Singleton-Wells, who has suggested she could be a community liaison for the city. “We need more creative ideas on how to get more Black residents involved in things like this.”
Advertisements for the Oct. 1 “Mayor Meetup” event at Brook Run Park with Grogan do not describe the meeting as a conversation on race. Deutsch said the city plans to do a series of “deep dives” into city departments and introduced Grogan’s presentation as a response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneanopolis police officer.
Residents brought up concerns about structural racism in their questions. In response, Grogan said he sees police unions and a lack of body cameras as two problems in other departments that promote structural racism. DPD does not have a union and does have body cameras.
Grogan said he’s “researching the issues” of structural racism and did not mention the possibility of any problems in DPD. The department has implicit bias and police legitimacy training for officers, Grogan said.
Three years ago, the city paid $187,000 in settlements after former DPD officer Dale Laskowski was sued four times for alleged unconstitutional searches at traffic stops. The officer resigned in good standing before he faced what Grogan said were possible sanctions.
The three of the men who sued were Black, and at least one said he felt racially profiled by the officer.
No internal investigation was documented in regard to the first three lawsuits or the possibility of racial profiling.
“That is case in point of what we’re looking at that is taking place throughout law enforcement in America,” said Norcross resident Jermaine Muhammad in June, who used to own a barber shop in Dunwoody and filed the first lawsuit. “It’s this allegiance to this White power class of protecting only a particular group of the public.”
Grogan found Laskowski to be in violation of four department policies after a fourth lawsuit, but Laskowski was never sanctioned because he resigned before those actions could be decided upon, Grogan told the Reporter in June. Grogan declined to comment further.
Deutsch said she does not know about any specific problems of structural racism in the city but that “there is always room for improvement.”
“Improving starts with an awareness and acknowledgement, for me, that there are things that I have not done as well as I should,” Deutsch said in an interview. “Acknowledging that and working to improve it is the way I personally move forward.”
Deutsch pointed to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance with a hate crime provision, passed in June 2019, as a policy that has already been enacted to promote inclusivity.
Deutsch said she’s having conversations to try to get more people of color into government boards and commissions, which she said was a problem in the government representation at a June event. Since then, she appointed an all-White charter commission and three other people to various boards, at least one of whom was a person of color, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher.
Singleton-Wells said the city government doesn’t seem to make representation or inclusivity a priority and wasn’t surprised to see race wasn’t mentioned in advertisements for the Oct. 1 event.
“Even if you look at Dunwoody’s social media, it’s so whitewashed you would think that nobody of color even lives in Dunwoody,” Singleton-Wells said. “With these meetups, don’t you want a person of color to be in a position of authority, so the people of Dunwoody who aren’t White have someone to relate to?”
Councilmember Heneghan said it is up to people of color to apply to serve on city boards and commissions. Applications for those positions are widely advertised in the city’s weekly newsletters and on social media, Heneghan said.
“I guess I can’t spoon-feed everybody every piece of information because Lord knows we really do try to get the right information out to the right people,” said Heneghan about trying other outreach methods.
Controversies about incorporation, apartments
Residents and city officials say the city’s incorporation came from a need for better policing, paving, parks and zoning control than what was provided by DeKalb County. Any racial tensions involved in the incorporation came from outside the city, not from the founders, Deutsch said.
“The development that DeKalb was allowing was consistently a five-story apartment complex all over, not just in Dunwoody, but all over DeKalb,” said Deutsch, who also noted residents felt they didn’t have a voice in county decisions.
Aversion to apartments continues to be a major issue as the city discusses rezoning the Dunwoody Village Overlay, which aims to encourage development that creates a more walkable downtown in an area that is considered the heart of the city. In 2013, the city was sued for allegedly violating federal housing laws and accused of trying to push out minority residents.
Deutsch, other officials and residents have concerns that apartments in Dunwoody Village would make the area too dense. Some residents said the city cannot handle more apartments due to overcrowded schools and congested streets.
The Dunwoody Homeowners Association board said it does not want any residential uses in Dunwoody Village in a rare split vote in February.
“Those who voted against the residential elements believe that apartments or condos are incompatible with the purpose of the Village Overlay to provide services to the surrounding single-family neighborhoods,” said DHA President Adrienne Duncan in a February written statement.
Multifamily ownership housing would be allowed in all districts, according to the rezoning plan. The council is set to vote on the rezoning plan in mid-October.
In 2013, the owners of Dunwoody Glen and LaCota apartments, both located on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, claimed the city officials used enforcement of housing codes to harass the apartment owners and tried to force them to sell or close the properties. Those apartments housed mostly people of color.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some residents at the time believed “apartment residents” was coded language for low-income or minority people that the new city did not want in its limits.
Two years earlier, the city wanted to use funds from a bond referendum to buy the apartments and tear them down to build a sports complex. Voters did not approve the bond, so the deal fell through. The apartment owners said that attempt was motivated by a desire to move people of color out of the city.
The lawsuit was dropped in 2014. In a statement at the time, the city said the dismissal “clears the city of Dunwoody from all accusations of harassment and discrimination.”