George Turner may have the toughest job in the city. As Atlanta’s police chief, he answers to Mayor Kasim Reed, whose mandate to Turner is as simple as it is daunting: Make Atlanta the safest big city in America. While the numbers may be on Turner’s side—violent crime last year saw a 10 percent decrease, and Reed wants to see it fall another 15 percent this year—public perception is not. Last November, a thirty-nine-year-old man was shot and killed in Virginia-Highland as he tried to flee his attackers. The murder of Charles Boyer shook the affluent intown neighborhood, where just a month later a woman was raped in her own home. Police eventually made arrests in both cases, but the high-profile crimes—and their seeming randomness—unsettled the city. At the same time, the department itself was in the spotlight: The hard-charging Red Dog unit, already under fire for a 2009 raid on the Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar on Ponce de Leon, was faced with accusations that some of its officers had pulled over a motorist and made him take down his pants in public, ostensibly to search for drugs. In February, Atlanta
magazine editor Steve Fennessy spoke with Turner, who had just marked a year on the job. Turner is an Atlanta native and a career city cop who once worked as a bodyguard for Andrew Young. Five days after our discussion, he announced he was disbanding Red Dog.
You’ve been on the job a year. What are you seeing? What’s surprised you?
I’ve been on the police department for twenty-nine and a half years, so I’ve seen a tremendous change. Back in the mid-eighties, we probably averaged 200 homicides a year in the city of Atlanta. Last year we had less than 100 homicides—for only the third time since 1964. It was an increase from eighty the previous year, but 2009 was really just off the charts. At our highest we had 263 homicides in a year. So we’ve seen a tremendous change in where we are. We had over thirty-five housing projects in the mid-eighties in Atlanta; there’s not a single [large] housing project that operates in the city today.
Crime has changed. It’s gotten more intelligent. It’s moved to different areas. We’ve had to move with that crime. Technology continues to drive what we do around policing. Intelligence-driven policing is the model around our country.
Last year we had a 10 percent drop in violent crime [from the year before]. At the same time, we’ve had an increase in the high-profile type of crimes—burglaries, robberies, home invasions. So we’re not there yet.