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A Call to Service

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When the world began to split at the seams, Alicia Philipp, the longtime director of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, was in a vineyard in Sao Pedro do Sul, Portugal, visiting family. From her vantage point, the deadly coronavirus, already tearing through Europe, was a real, if not necessarily immediate, threat to America.

About that time, in Atlanta, the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Milton J. Little Jr. felt the rending, too. As president of the powerhouse nonprofit, he had begun internal conversations on the virus. But nothing had moved much past the talk stage.

All that changed within days. What had been a nebulous overseas menace became a hometown catastrophe. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered. The economy struggled. And caught in the crosshairs of the crisis were the most fragile in Atlanta: the sick, the elderly, the poor, the homeless, the underserved.

Milton J. Little Jr., president of United Way of Greater Atlanta

Photo courtesy of United Way of Greater Atlanta

From that first split, though, in the first half of March, Atlanta’s philanthropic community coalesced with unprecedented focus and ferocity. Little worked the phones from his kitchen table. Philipp WhatsApp-ed back to Atlanta while walking her daughter’s vineyard, wrestling with a five-hour time difference. On March 17, the two organizations launched the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund which, in about a week after its formation, already had generated more than $17 million in donations from local corporations and deep-pocketed charitable foundations. By March 26, the first few grants already were out.

Barely two weeks had passed since the pandemic first hit home.

“That never happens in the world of philanthropy, right?” Philipp says. “There were so many [needs] that were so immediate. It wasn’t like it slowly built up. It happened, like, whammy. The response needed to be equally immediate.”

By early May, more than $25 million had been raised, and 320 local nonprofits—from more than 600 that applied—had directly benefited.

“I think the community responded both extraordinarily and unsurprisingly well,” Little says. “People recognized the severity of the impact this was likely to have and saw some real threats. Kids who needed to find a way to be able to continue their education when school went online. Families needing to be able to put food on the table. And to address the kinds of financial challenges that just came up like a kind of tidal wave and really risked sweeping people out to sea and being lost forever.”

Behemoths like the Atlanta Community Food Bank used a massive grant to support nearly 700 partner groups across metro Atlanta and North Georgia. Other, smaller nonprofits met more specific needs. A Latino group, Ser Familia, received a six-figure award to provide mental health counseling to its clients, in Spanish, and to supply food and emergency assistance. Ser Familia serves a lot of Latinos in hospitality and construction, areas which crumbled with the economy. Some couldn’t get aid from government agencies.

Grants were awarded to dozens of groups with unique needs, like the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, which provided halal meals to 500 seniors in East Atlanta; the Tahirih Justice Center, which supports immigrant survivors of gender-based violence; and Giving Kitchen, which represents hard-hit food-service workers.

Jen Hidinger-Kendrick, co-founder of Giving Kitchen

Photo by Ben Getz

“We saw more asks for help during the first week of COVID-19 than we saw in all of 2018,” Giving Kitchen co-founder Jen Hidinger-Kendrick says. “The fundamental services we provide helped keep a line cook from being evicted, allowed a server to pay for her mother’s funeral expenses, and kept the lights on for a bartender going through cancer treatment.”

At the same time, nonprofits used their own partnerships and fundraising skills to add to the influx of money. In a matter of weeks, more than 5,000 people—90 percent of them newcomers—donated to Giving Kitchen.

“I am an optimist by nature. I think that most people are good. Most people just want to help,” says Belisa Urbina, the founder and executive director of Ser Familia. “They just need to find a way to do it.”

For the Community Foundation and United Way, the crisis was a defining test. Staff and volunteers attacked it, cobbling together working solutions (Zooming from home, WhatsApp-ing from Portugal, streamlining the application process for grants), putting in back-breaking hours, and all the while concentrating on the neediest.

“We provided for large organizations early on, but in our open-application process, we decided it was important to support smaller organizations with smaller budgets,” Lita Pardi, the vice president for community for the Community Foundation and a key driver behind the fund, said in July. “In the end, out of all the organizations that we supported through the fund so far, 49 percent are agencies with budgets under $1 million.”

Ser Familia

Photo courtesy of Ser Familia

As remarkable as the response has been, the need remains even greater. Through June, more than 367,000 workers in the metro area had filed first-time unemployment claims, a stunning 3,700 percent rise from 2019. The loss of income has potentially devastating implications:

  • Without steady paychecks, living conditions for thousands across the metro area are imperiled.
  • Thousands more—maybe more than 1 million—struggle with hunger every day.
  • The education of hundreds of thousands of children was interrupted when schools closed; more than 344,000 area schoolkids, according to United Way, do not have access to the proper educational tools to learn while out of the classroom.
  • And the threat of COVID-19 remains, with the pressures it places on the physical and mental wellbeing of the area’s neediest.

Although the work is destined to continue for years—the pandemic has laid bare undeniably deep-rooted economic and social inequity in Atlanta—the city has shown in this crisis an admirable ability to rise to the call.

“I think it’s about the spirit of the people . . . who work at our institutions who believe really strongly in the power of community to come together when it’s really needed and have a commitment and dedication to working on behalf of others,” says Katrina Mitchell, United Way Atlanta’s chief community impact officer and another key player in the formation of the relief fund. “I think that’s, for me, truly powerful and uplifting.”

Here are a few of the hundreds of Atlanta organizations that have stepped up:

Housing

In early April, as the full force of the pandemic descended on Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp declared that all Georgians should shelter in place—a particular problem for the area’s thousands of homeless. Says United Way’s Little: “You can’t shelter in place on the street.”

Statistics vary, but on any given night in Atlanta, some 2,000 people are without any kind of shelter—they’re on the street—and some 7,000 are otherwise homeless throughout the metro area, according to Atlanta Mission. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s last Point-in-Time count found that almost 86 percent are Black.

Gateway Center, the venerable downtown institution which provides emergency shelter and critical services to the homeless—meals, showers, health checks, employment aid—immediately confronted the challenge that the virus posed. While other shelters closed to new residents as a precaution, and others, staffed largely by at-risk elderly volunteers, closed down entirely, Gateway remained open to serve its nearly 500 residents. The people at Gateway worked to educate the homeless population, in their Pryor Street facility and on the street, in preventing the spread of the virus. With the help of the City of Atlanta, Mercy Care, and many others, Gateway was among the organizations engaged in the first full-scale virus testing of the area’s homeless. Thousands of tests were done in 16 shelters early in April.

MercyCare

Photo courtesy of the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta

Gateway, with others, also partnered with two downtown hotels, largely unused as the pandemic spread. One was used for quarantining homeless persons who showed symptoms of infection or who tested positive. The other was for housing healthy but at-risk homeless.

“We didn’t have to have healthy folks and people who were symptomatic in the same facility. I think that particularly hurt some of the nursing homes,” says Raphael Holloway, the CEO of Gateway Center. “As a community, we really have come together well in being innovative in solutions. We’ve truly been able to manage the storm much better than we could have ever predicted.”

The rate of infection among Atlanta’s homeless population, which some feared could reach epidemic levels, was lower than 2 percent through the middle of summer. Other big cities saw their numbers run in the 30–40 percent range, Holloway says.

The surge of unemployment and loss of income sparked by the pandemic have threatened thousands of renters and homeowners with potential homelessness, too. A small nonprofit in Peoplestown, the Housing Justice League, organizes communities to defend their right to remain in their homes.

The League accepted a grant to launch a COVID-19 hotline, which assists residents with troublesome banks or landlords. It’s proven particularly important to those who can’t leave home to attend organizing meetings. The real value in the grant, though, may be highlighting the injustices that the Housing Justice League has been fighting for years.

“I must say that I am not always pleased with the way Atlanta understands the working class and poor people and how they value the residents in the city,” says Alison Johnson, the executive director of the HJL. “As we begin to see that more people that are not people of color are experiencing difficulties, I see a lot more people calling us and saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing, yada yada yada?’

“But that’s not where the power is. That’s not what’s going to help the people in Atlanta. What’s going to really help folks in Atlanta is policy and organizations like the Housing Justice League that believe in the value of people in the city.”

Food Security

On March 2, the week before the pandemic hit home, the Atlanta Community Food Bank moved into a huge new facility on North Desert Drive in East Point. It’s been doling out tons of food ever since.

“We’re very proud of how our team has responded to this crisis. We’ve grown our food distribution volumes by nearly 50 percent since the onset of the crisis, providing 25 million meals to people in need since March 16,” says Kyle Waide, the ACFB’s president and CEO. “We’re feeding more people more food more often than we ever have.”

The Food Bank provides weekly food distribution to five local school districts (Atlanta Public Schools, Fulton County, DeKalb County, Clayton County, and Marietta City schools) at more than 20 sites. The students there are just some of an estimated 1 million people in the Food Bank’s 29-county service area that are unsure of where their next meal is coming from.

Others harshly affected by the pandemic have found help from the Food Bank, too. Local hotel workers directly impacted by a downturn in visitors were given 12,800 pounds of food—enough for 250 families—in a drive-up distribution.

Like all nonprofits, the Food Bank has had its challenges. Food donations dropped. Concerned with spreading the virus, the organization stopped using volunteers at its main facility. But a sizable grant from the United Way/Community Foundation fund helped restock the warehouse, and the Georgia National Guard took over for volunteers.

Several groups that don’t normally focus on food security issues suddenly were thrust into the role of food providers. And others familiar with feeding the hungry have seen a surge in requests.

“Last year, the whole year, we delivered, I think it was, about 514,000 meals,” Charlene Crusoe-Ingram, the CEO of Meals on Wheels Atlanta, said in late July. “This year already, we’re probably at 360 [thousand] or so. We’re projecting, if we keep on the pace we’re on, we might get very close to a million.”

Meals on Wheels, which supports low-income seniors and veterans, found new donors and used a strong volunteer base to come up with innovative ways to get meals to clients while keeping staff and volunteers safe. Drive-up Super Saturday events limit contact between the 100 or so volunteers who prepare personalized, boxed meals at the northwest Atlanta facility and those who deliver them. The group can turn some 12,000 meals out of the building and on their way to doorsteps in a little over an hour.

“We’ve always been concerned about generating donations for seniors. Nobody wants to be elderly and out of sight,” Crusoe-Ingram says. “But I’ve been so pleasantly amazed at the generosity in this city.”

Healthcare

The virus sickened more than 150,000 Georgians through the end of July and killed more than 3,400. More than a third of the grants from the United Way/Community Foundation fund were made to healthcare organizations. They responded in novel ways.

In three days, CHRIS 180, which provides school-based mental health services in 42 schools and counseling in seven spots in Fulton and DeKalb counties, switched to telehealth services to keep in touch with those who need help. “We are all living through a shared community trauma,” says Kathy Colbenson, the president and CEO of CHRIS 180, “and as a therapist and leader who specializes in understanding and recovering from trauma, I know that being able to act is critical to healing.”

The East Atlanta organization pivoted into other areas of service despite no previous experience. CHRIS 180—the acronym stands for Creativity, Honor, Respect, Integrity, and Safety—provided food service (more than 31,000 meals through late July) for the first time. Counselors did in-home well-checks. They provided Chromebooks and other educational tools for those clients who needed them for telehealth or schoolwork. They delivered medications and toys, too.

Sadie G. Mays Health and Rehabilitation Center

Photo by Casey McDaniel

Few organizations have felt the wrath of the virus more than nursing homes. The nonprofit Sadie G. Mays Health & Rehabilitation Center in West Atlanta houses elderly, low-income Atlantans, providing short-term rehab and long-term hospice and nursing care for its majority Black residents. Sadie G. Mays faced huge challenges.

“Staffing was the most severe thing. Some employees just quit, with no notice,” says Charles Robinson Jr., the president and CEO of Mays. “They were afraid, and they never came back.”

Through late July, 129 residents and 43 staff members tested positive for the virus. Among the success stories, though, were a 104-year-old resident who recovered and Tina Brown, the facility’s interim director of health services. “I was quarantined at home with viral pneumonia for almost three weeks. Then, by the grace of God, I was able to come back to work,” Brown says.

“We had some help from the community, which we appreciated. The State of Georgia provided us with six registered nurses and sent the National Guard to help with testing and sanitizing our facility. We were also able to get periodic donations of PPE and other supplies from Fulton County. We sought out every type of foundation and public health grants available and were successful in securing several grants,” Robinson says. “Even so, it’s been very difficult to carry on our work.”

Education

When area schools began to close, educators sprung to action. The move to learning over the internet was a given. But what about those students without the tools to jump online?

Inspiredu, formerly known as PowerMyLearning, provides needy students in low-income areas with laptops, Wi-Fi, and other materials to get them learning online. They’ve handed out nearly 13,000 devices since 2007. When schools closed in March, they fielded requests from several schools for almost 5,000 students. By mid-July, they had provided 1,400 refurbished laptops and other devices, supplying technical support out of their warehouse in northwest Atlanta.

Inspiredu

Photo by Sharon B. Dowdell

“It feels like we have been preparing for a time like this for 13 years,” says Oneisha Freeman, the director of partnerships and programs for Inspiredu, “and although there is still much more work to be done, we’re very fortunate to have the support of the philanthropic community, board members, and individuals in the tech and corporate community who really get the technology access challenge with the willingness to be there and plug in where we need to the most.”

Other educational hurdles had to be cleared to keep students on track, too. What about educators unfamiliar with teaching online? What about parents forced into the role of teacher? How are each of those groups supposed to know what to do?

GPB Education, a division of Georgia Public Broadcasting, partnered with the Georgia Department of Education and launched Georgia Home Classroom, an online resource filled with learning tools across all subjects and grade levels.

“GPB Education has been, and is, a thriving entity. Just this last year, there were close to 11.5 million downloads from GPB Education,” says Teya Ryan, president and CEO of Georgia Public Broadcasting. “That’s pretty astonishing. Sometimes we can barely keep up. Certainly those numbers rose exponentially during April and May.” The content online has 3.2 million page views already this year, up 104 percent from last year, according to GPB figures.

The GPB team also wiped out preschool programming during the day and replaced it with around 10 hours of general educational programming on television. “Which, may I remind you, is free,” Ryan says.

GPB Education conducted its first virtual workshop on online learning on March 17 and held 91 more sessions over the next three months, reaching 2,816 educators and families. That’s in addition to in-person courses that show potential educators all that GPB offers.

In effect, GPB taught teachers—professional and novice—how to teach in the age of the pandemic. And it came about, as it did with hundreds of other nonprofits, largely because of the generosity of others.

“I think our beloved city has been challenged like every other city in America,” Ryan says. “Let’s give our city and our state great credit. This is an amazing philanthropic community. I think the city has really risen to the philanthropic call, and it did so immediately.”


 

How other Atlanta nonprofits have weathered the storm:

  • C4 Atlanta began a fund for out-of-work artists and moved training courses online as the pandemic hit. The group also stopped charging rent to tenants in the Fuse Arts Center. Artists helped to deliver food, masks, and other supplies to the needy. “They amaze me,” says C4’s Jessyca Holland. “Artists amaze me.”
  • Zeroing in on long-time donors after the loss of a major fundraiser and opening a new store to create more revenue has kept the heroes at Furkids humming. Adoptions are soaring. “I’m so happy,” founder Samantha Shelton says, “that people realize what a great time it was—is—to bring a pet into their lives.”
  • Piedmont Park has proven essential to Atlanta during the pandemic, but operating a 200-plus acre park without the funds typically generated from program and venue rentals hasn’t been easy. Thankfully, donors and volunteers have stepped in to fill that void. “From picking up trash, mulching, and pruning to making financial contributions, donors and volunteers are the reason people still want to find respite in Piedmont Park every day,” says Piedmont Park Conservancy’s Mark Banta.

Atlanta experts share tips for fighting maskne

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Tips for fighting maskne mask acneWhile wearing a mask or face covering is essential for public health, it can be tough on your skin: “Masks trap heat and humidity, which compromises the skin’s delicate barrier and exacerbates existing oils, creating the perfect environment for breakouts,” explains esthetician Bisma Rais of Artisan Beauté in Buckhead. Banish blemishes, irritation, and other mask-induced issues with these tips from Rais and other skincare experts.

Opt for skin-friendly fabrics
Just like fitness enthusiasts favor breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics, dermatologist Dr. Nikki Hill recommends that non-frontline workers look for similar qualities in masks and face coverings. (To be most effective, they should be tightly woven and multilayered—or have a built-in pocket for a filter.) “Cotton will wick away moisture, and you should avoid fabrics made with synthetic dyes or chemicals.”

Prep your canvas
“Think about how you treat your skin when you’re flying,” explains Rais, who suggests using soothing and calming products before even masking up. Her go-to? Biologique Recherche’s Crème Masque Vernix, which has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that create the “perfect barrier” between a face covering and skin. She also regularly hydrates her face with a mist “to bring oxygen and life back into the skin” and uses a gentle, oxygen-rich cleanser like BR’s Lait VIP O.

Ditch the makeup
A made-up face is so 2019. Not only will that carefully applied blush or foundation end up smudging, but it will transfer to your mask, which “increases moisture and leads to more breakouts,” explains Hill.

Esthetician and Kindred Studio co-owner Kelly Painter agrees. “So many of our clients have seen improvement in their skin by letting it ‘breathe’ more regularly and avoiding the inevitable bacteria and grime buildup of wearing foundation under a mask,” she says. “A tinted moisturizer like the Ilia Super Serum Skin Tint is an excellent alternative to traditional foundation.”

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

How a new fragrance shop—the first of its kind in town—is navigating the pandemic

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Indiehouse Modern Fragrance BarLocal shops have pivoted to a time when fewer customers are shopping in stores. Designer Abbey Glass has hosted outdoor “sidewalk sales” of her feminine frocks; Megan Huntz created a “care package” including a candle and an eye mask to be shipped to friends; the Victorian plant shop, with its new storefront at Ponce City Market, has even listed all of its exotic plants in an online shop, with delivery and curbside pickup options. But for some things, it’s hard to replace the in-store experience: Indiehouse Modern Fragrance Bar opened in downtown Alpharetta in the middle of the pandemic as the metro area’s first independent fragrance shop, carrying 42 niche brands and 150 scents from around the world, most of which aren’t available elsewhere in the city—plus a blending bar where shoppers can mix their own custom scents.

“The idea was to celebrate community,” says owner Carrie Hadley, who had prepared for years to open the shop, with workshops a big part of the plan. It’s not exactly a time when shoppers want to be smelling each other’s wrists, and it’s hard to mandate masks when your nose is the key player, but Hadley does have a few things going for her. She has a standalone building in the heart of Alpharetta’s historic downtown, where people can stroll with open containers. In addition to limiting customers and taking temperatures at the door, she’s equipped the store with heavy-duty air purifiers intended to trap scent molecules, typically even smaller particles than virus droplets. Plus, she says, scents can make people happy. They trigger memory and routine. (And, as an added bonus, they can tell you if you’ve lost your sense of smell—a reported symptom of COVID-19.)

“It’s no surprise people are gravitating toward brighter, happier, calming scents right now,” she says. “Scent can really pick up your mood.” (Bergamot and chamomile have been top picks.) Hadley also carries candles and home fragrances, and if you’re not up for sniffing in store, she’ll ship samples you can test at home, for $19 for three blends. Fragrances range from under $100 to more than $300.

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

5 face masks from favorite Atlanta brands (including one made with basil and mint)

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Atlanta face masks we love

Yes, this is for real! Yolanda Owens of Iwi Fresh Farm-to-Skin Spa makes aromatherapeutic masks like this one of basil, mint, rosemary, and anise hyssop. They have a fabric lining (and you can also add an additional filter), last for weeks, and cost $35.

Atlanta face masks we love

The Bombchel Factory
Batik reversible African cloth beard mask, $30

Atlanta face masks we love

Sock Fancy x Greg Mike
“Loudmask Blue,” $12 (kids’ masks for $9)

Atlanta face masks we love

Abbey Glass
$16

Atlanta face masks we love

Bill Hallman x Second Helpings Atlanta
Palm print, $20

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

Asian seafood restaurant Girl Diver opens soon in Reynoldstown

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Signage at Girl Diver

Courtesy of Richard Tang

Chef Richard Tang, owner of Char Korean in Inman Park, is opening an Asian seafood spot called Girl Diver in Reynoldstown in early October. Located in the Madison Yards development (955 Memorial Drive), Girl Diver has Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai roots.

“My dad is Chinese; my mom is Vietnamese. Girl Diver is based on the food I grew up eating,” Tang says. “It’s comfort food to me, and what’s more American than a blend?”

Spicy crawfish

Courtesy of Richard Tang

Mike Yang, former director of culinary arts for Char, was originally slated to lead the kitchen. But when family issues took him away from the project, Tang brought in Karl Gorline—previously of Watershed on Peachtree—as chef de cuisine. He’ll carry out the menus Tang wrote.

These include crawfish, crab legs, and king crab by the pound, as well as shaking beef, thit kho (slow-braised pork belly), shrimp papaya salad, mussels in green curry, and Fisherman’s Egg made with Asian flavors. Hot and sour soup, fried egg rolls, vegetarian dumplings, and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese will be available, too.

Garlic butter cheese bread

Courtesy of Richard Tang

Green curry mussels

Courtesy of Richard Tang

“It all depends on people’s [preferred] flavor profile and what they really want,” Tang says.

Cam Burke, formerly of Foxtrot Liquor Bar, will lead the bar program, serving craft cocktails, Sapporo on tap, and 10 other bottled or canned beers. Expect wines by the glass, as well as the bottle.

When it opens, Girl Diver will only serve dinner—including curbside takeout and delivery options. Later, brunch and lunch service will be added.

The space, which features both indoor and outdoor seating, is designed to reflect the work of well-known Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. The name Girl Diver, too, alludes to his work and the ancient tradition of pearl-collecting deep-sea divers in Asia.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tang says all restaurant staff will wear face coverings, and the space will be sprayed weekly with an electrostatic solution that kills bacteria. Tang says the air filtration system will utilize ozone filters to purify the air.

Chicken curry

Courtesy of Richard Tang

Spicy crab legs

Courtesy of Richard Tang

Art Beats is a virtual front-row ticket to the city’s new shows

Art Beats Atlanta online performances
Atlanta Ballet hosts a virtual class.

Photograph courtesy of Art Beats Atlanta

Perhaps Art Beats—Atlanta’s new portal for online performances and exhibitions—is so user friendly because the idea started with an arts fan. When the pandemic shut down the city, David Smith, a marketing executive and avid local arts patron, noticed how much easier it was to find information about how restaurants were coping than it was to keep up with his favorite theaters and galleries. He and his friend Rachel May, producing artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre, decided to create a multidisciplinary site where groups could keep audiences informed and share everything from dance performances to visual arts “openings.”

Aided by a grant from Mailchimp and business-development training from arts nonprofit C4 Atlanta, Smith and May hired a graphic designer and started recruiting arts groups to participate. The founders and a few colleagues then formed a committee to vet organizations, making criteria flexible to encourage inclusion. Within a couple of months, the site launched with more than 50 members; today, it has more than 80, from institutions like Hammonds House and Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus to innovators like Aurora Theatre and Terminus Ballet.

“The arts community here is tight-knit. This was just the natural next step for the collaborations we’ve been building,” says Gretchen Butler, managing director of Theatrical Outfit, who helped with the startup. “Art Beats is really a hub for the arts and goes a little deeper than a calendar listing.”

May says the growing roster of members gives users an opportunity to experiment: “Maybe I love theater, but I’ve never checked out the dance companies in town. People don’t realize how many different organizations there are.”

Art Beats Atlanta online performances
Zoetic Dance presents Charmed Ones by Corian Ellisor.

Photograph courtesy of Art Beats Atlanta

Currently, the main attraction for users is free access to a wide array of virtual programming. Some organizations, such as the Center for Puppetry Arts and Dad’s Garage, are creating shows specifically for online audiences, while others are repurposing existing content.

“All of us arts organizations had to very rapidly change our plans for the spring and summer,” says Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas. Her organization created a Choreo Chat YouTube series, combining imagery from past performances with interviews of choreographers—such as a recent spotlight on Lonnie Davis, which includes a video clip from his 2018 work, Rise, danced to the words of Maya Angelou.

Butler, of Theatrical Outfit, says she feels “[Art Beats] is a great thing not just in the time of the pandemic but also when things go back to normal.”

This article appears in our September 2020 issue.

What will it take for APD to change the way it polices itself?

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This story was produced in partnership with Type Investigations.

On the June night that an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot, Deravis Thomas was at home 20 miles away in Henry County when he heard what had happened. He found out not from watching the news but from a friend who lives three blocks away from the Wendy’s. Thomas wasn’t surprised—not by the shooting, sadly, and not that his friend reached out. Whenever there’s a police shooting, no matter where in Atlanta, “I usually get a call,” he says. “I hate that I have become somebody that is known through my tragedy.”

On another warm June night, four years earlier, Thomas was at his mother’s house in East Atlanta when he got the call about his son. Deravis Caine Rogers was 22 and had just landed a new job at a Procter & Gamble warehouse. “He was so proud,” Thomas says. Later, at the morgue, Thomas would notice that his son’s face was clean-shaven and his hair was freshly cut for his orientation. His father says “he was so particular” about looking his best for important events.

Hours before the call, an off-duty APD officer working security at a Piedmont Heights apartment complex caught sight of a man “jumping fences” and took off after him on foot, calling for backup. Within minutes, Officer James Burns, who was working traffic duty nearby, responded.

Just as Burns arrived near the complex, Rogers pulled his silver Ford Fusion out of its parking spot down the road. As he drove toward Burns’s vehicle, Burns turned on his blue lights and chirped his siren. Two women walked along the sidewalk by Burns’s patrol car. In the space of four seconds, as recorded on Burns’s dash cam, the Ford Fusion turned to drive around the patrol car and Burns got out of his car, yelled at the driver to stop, and fired a single shot at Rogers, striking him in the head. The women screamed.

Burns would tell APD investigators that Rogers “gunned the engine” toward him and that he was afraid Rogers was trying to run him over.

APD fired Burns nine days later, finding that Rogers “posed no immediate threat” to Burns, that there was no evidence linking Rogers to any criminal activity that night, and that shooting Rogers was “unnecessary and unreasonable.” Four years later, Burns is awaiting trial on criminal charges of felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and violating his oath of office; the City of Atlanta faces a civil suit from Rogers’s parents.

APD took swift action against the officer who killed his son, but Thomas has come to believe that Burns is an outlier. Over the past four years, Thomas has kept up with the nearly 40 shootings of civilians—some found to be justified, some not—at the hands of APD officers. He wants to know why they keep happening. He’s seen the defenses police often give—I felt like my life was threatened. I thought he had a weapon.—but considers many of them inadequate. “We need law and order for everybody,” he says. “You can’t police the communities and not be held accountable for the very same thing.”

Deravis Thomas
Deravis Thomas joined a “tragic club” after his 22-year-old son was killed by a police officer in a shooting APD ruled to be “unnecessary and unreasonable.”

Photograph by Lynsey Witherspoon

These days, Thomas feels like his questions are less likely to go quietly unanswered than they are to be drowned out by the sheer volume of people voicing the same concerns. During a spring and summer of heightened tensions between police and civilians, Atlanta loudly joined a national chorus calling for more drastic reform than ever.

Violent clashes initially erupted in May between police and protesters and soon intensified after Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe killed Brooks. For more than three weeks, activists occupied the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot—an occupation that ended only after multiple armed civilians in the crowd fired at a car, killing the eight-year-old girl in the back seat. By that time, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had called for the terminations of multiple officers, including Rolfe, who has since been indicted on murder charges by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard; popular APD Chief Erika Shields, who’d gone viral for denouncing the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, stepped down after demands for her resignation; and 171 Atlanta officers called in sick, most in protest, in the three days after Rolfe’s indictment. Howard, who held his post for more than two decades, was voted out of office shortly thereafter. Atlantans have clogged up City Council meetings with calls about defunding the Atlanta Police Department to such an extent that the Council had to pass an ordinance limiting public comment in order to get anything done.

In the wake of Brooks’s death, city leaders are weighing reforms to strengthen Atlanta’s police accountability system—including both APD’s internal affairs department and its citizen oversight board. But the reforms launched on the heels of other high-profile APD missteps show that similar efforts have often fallen short. An analysis by Atlanta and Type Investigations of thousands of pages of internal-affairs case files and court documents alleging abuses by police found that civilians’ complaints against officers often take too long for the department to resolve (in violation of a court order) and that the nature of APD’s record keeping makes it difficult for the public (and even for a court-appointed monitor) to track the department’s progress when it comes to how it polices itself.

What’s more, the analysis also indicates that the department’s system for flagging potentially problematic officers has missed as many as seven of them since 2014. In one case, it appears to have failed to flag an officer at least twice before he was ultimately fired and later sent to prison for assaulting a 15-year-old.

Efforts to address issues plaguing the department have proven exasperating both for critics of the department and for the police themselves. Jason Segura, an APD sergeant and the president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, says some APD officers see the indictments in the Brooks shooting as a warning. “Officers are afraid that, even if they do their job the way that they were trained, following the rules of engagement, following all use-of-force policies that are based on established case law, they’re still getting fired and arrested.”

Moving forward may require a shift in how the city defines the very mission of policing—a shift that might only be possible now that the public is paying as close attention to police shootings as bereaved parents like Thomas. “The City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department have gotten a pass to date because they have stood under the mantle of being the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, being a place that has had African American mayors and minority police chiefs,” says attorney Shean Williams, who represents Rogers’s parents among other litigants in APD cases and was part of a city-formed Use of Force Advisory Council over the summer.

Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, says that Atlanta should instead use its civil rights legacy to equip itself to make necessary change. “There’s a particularly redemptive potential that Atlanta has [to address previous harms],” Bervera says. In the City Too Busy to Hate, revolutionary solutions might be the only ones that can heal certain wounds—and the only ones that can prevent fathers like Thomas from losing their sons.

Erika Shields
Popular APD Chief Erika Shields, pictured here at a May 29 protest, stepped down in June, following calls for her resignation in the wake of the Rayshard Brooks shooting.

Photograph by Thomas Wheatley

To understand the current fissures in Atlanta’s relationship with its police department, you’ll need to understand what happened at a Ponce de Leon Avenue gay bar in September 2009. Late one Thursday night, two dozen Atlanta police officers, some part of the infamous SWAT-style Red Dog unit, raided the Atlanta Eagle, following up on an anonymous complaint about stripping without a permit and acts of public sex. The party atmosphere inside the club quickly shifted to one of fear: Officers handcuffed the bar’s patrons, telling them to “lay down on the fucking floor” or shoving them there. Some customers didn’t know the assailants were police. The music cut off; the lights turned on. When one patron cried as police forced others to the ground, an officer told him to be quiet and threatened him with a baton. Some witnesses later told investigators that APD officers made anti-gay comments, such as threatening to tell patrons’ wives about them hanging out at a gay bar.

Two years later, in 2011, a federal judge found that the officers carried out illegal searches and seizures. A judicial order required that the city pay more than $1 million in settlements (and another $1 million for an external investigation by a private firm) and that APD provide new training for officers and better document and resolve misconduct complaints. As a result of the raid, APD disbanded the Red Dog unit. The department has since created community-centered units, including an LGBTQ+ liaison team.

But some of those court-required reforms stalled in the years that followed. In 2015, a federal judge found APD noncompliant with several conditions of the court order, including implementing search-and-seizure training and resolving civilian misconduct complaints within 180 days. A year later, Dan Grossman, one of the attorneys for the Eagle raid plaintiffs, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that APD was not providing a full accounting of citizen complaints to him and his clients, as court orders mandated, and continued to take more than 180 days to resolve all citizen complaints.

The internal-affairs process still takes longer than it should: Our analysis revealed that, of the nearly 1,000 civilian investigations opened and closed since 2015, more than 200 (or 22 percent) took longer than 180 days to resolve. Major Charles Hampton, head of APD’s internal affairs department, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), acknowledges the delays. “There’s a number of things that could happen. Sometimes, they sit on desks, and there’s not movement in a timely manner,” he says, adding that APD still operates under a paper file system. “We’re sometimes faced with the limitations and budget constraints that may not always be in APD’s control.” Other times, officers might be out on military or sick leave, or turnover might slow the process down. (Hampton, who has led OPS since February, is the third OPS head in the last six years.)

OPS investigates complaints on anything from officers filling out reports incorrectly to using excessive force. Its investigators take statements and review body and dash camera footage, among other evidence. If there’s enough evidence to sustain the complaint, OPS recommends how the officer should be punished, such as a written reprimand for less egregious violations, or suspension for serious ones.

OPS also has an Early Warning system, a form of which has been in place for decades. If an officer receives multiple complaints in a certain amount of time—usually one year—or shows a pattern of misconduct, OPS will alert the officer’s supervisors, and the officer will receive counseling, additional training, reassignment, or other corrective actions. Supervisors themselves can also initiate Early Warning if they witness officers behaving problematically.

Could there be a situation in which OPS—or IAPro, its internal system that catalogs complaints—failed to alert the department of an officer who should enter the Early Warning system? “I have not experienced one situation where we were not alerted,” says Sergeant William Dean, who works with OPS and APD’s employee assistance program.

But a review of APD’s Early Warning system records indicates the department has failed to flag a handful of officers. APD provided us with a list of 108 officers who entered the program between 2014 and 2020—with the officers’ names redacted. We then looked at a larger list of all officers who were investigated for unnecessary force and determined which should have been flagged by the Early Warning system (due to multiple unsustained excessive force complaints in a single year or a single sustained one)—and crosschecked those officers’ birth years, hire years, and race with the Early Warning list APD provided. We found that seven officers who should have been flagged by the Early Warning system appear to be missing

When asked why those officers seem not to have been placed into the Early Warning system, Sergeant John Chafee, with APD’s Public Affairs Unit, wrote in an email that the department would not discuss specific officers to protect their privacy. He also stated that “there is no law requiring us to have our Early Warning Review (EWR) system. We understand how important initiatives like these are and we implemented this as part of our proactive efforts in seeking out and maintaining the best practices. . . . The system is not perfect and we will continue looking at ways we can improve, but EWR has been a tremendous asset.”

We also asked APD which of the seven officers we identified were still employed by APD, but the department did not provide that information by press time.

Former APD officer Matthew Johns was one of the officers who should have been flagged. By the end of 2014, Johns had faced multiple allegations of excessive force—none sustained by OPS. (Among the allegations: In May 2014, APD officers stopped a Black man for yelling “fuck the police” and “throwing” gang signs, the man ran, Johns and fellow officers tried to arrest him, and Johns gave him three “compliant strikes” to the face, according to the APD file.) Per APD’s Early Warning system policy at the time, Johns should have been placed into the program for having multiple unsustained use-of-force complaints in a year. But both a deposition by an OPS officer and our analysis indicate he wasn’t.

Two years later, in 2016, Johns kicked 15-year-old Antraveious Payne in the head and kneeled on his neck after police chased him and other suspects in a stolen car. That resulted in Johns’s fifth excessive force complaint—and first sustained one by OPS—in three years. Johns was fired by APD for that incident in 2017 and later criminally charged and sentenced to five years in prison. (Payne’s family is suing Johns and the City of Atlanta.) In a 2019 deposition, Sergeant Dean was asked by a lawyer in the Payne case why Johns wasn’t listed in the Early Warning system. “I don’t know if the system provided an alert or failed to provide an alert,” he responded.

APD shared in an email that, between 2014 and 2016, an average 28 APD employees were referred annually to the Early Warning system, usually for domestic violence, driving under the influence, or “unusual behavior,” according to reports they provided. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of employees referred to the Early Warning program dropped to an average nine per year. Sergeant Chafee wrote in an email that, since implementing additional support programs, including a more informal Early Intervention program in 2016, “we have seen a significant decrease in the number of officers entering EWR. We are pleased with the success of these programs but understand our efforts must be ongoing.”

Other officers have avoided the Early Warning thresholds. In August 2015, OPS opened an investigation into Rolfe for firing his gun at the driver of a stolen truck. (Five years later, the APD investigation into the shooting still remained open, according to Rolfe’s disciplinary history.) In September 2016, OPS opened another investigation into Rolfe for his role, along with Johns, in the arrest of Payne. According to OPS documents, Rolfe improperly pointed (but did not fire) his gun at suspects in a stolen car—including Payne—though he had no indication whether they were armed or posed a threat to him. For Rolfe to have been automatically flagged by the Early Warning system, he would have had to discharge his firearm twice within a year, according to APD standard operating procedure in 2016.

The next time OPS would investigate Rolfe for firing his gun on the job was when he shot Rayshard Brooks in the Wendy’s parking lot.

In February 2017, Noel Hall, a natural gas inspector, drove with his family the four hours from his home in western North Carolina down to the Georgia Dome for the annual Supercross dirt-bike race, as he had for each of the prior 20 years. That year, his son was racing for the first time. When Hall wanted to turn left into a restricted pit parking area, APD Sergeant Mathieu Cadeau, who was working off-duty directing traffic, wouldn’t let him, refusing to look at his pass. Hall turned into the lot anyway, in Cadeau’s direction—and Cadeau fired his gun into Hall’s driver-side window, striking Hall in the back of his left shoulder with a bullet that twice entered and exited his body, missing his heart—and his wife, in the passenger seat—by inches.

Cadeau’s history showed plenty of red flags before he shot Hall. He had been with APD for a decade and, in 2014, had four excessive force investigations opened against him, though OPS only found enough evidence to sustain one of them, in which Cadeau pepper-sprayed a handcuffed suspect. (The recommended discipline for that complaint was four days’ suspension—but a supervisor modified it to two days since Cadeau “accepted responsibility,” the file said.) OPS did not sustain a 2013 complaint of excessive force in which Cadeau shoved a Castleberry Hill festival-goer and arrested her and her husband, but nearly four years later, the City of Atlanta would pay $150,000 to settle a resulting court case.

In July 2014, after an incident in which Cadeau used pepper spray to break up a bar fight, APD placed him in its Early Warning system. In 2015, OPS recommended Cadeau be dismissed for that incident. (OPS found the force he used to be reasonable, but Cadeau gave conflicting accounts of what happened—and lying during an OPS investigation is automatic grounds for dismissal.) That recommendation was overturned, however, by then Chief George Turner, after Cadeau appealed. While APD has disciplinary guidelines for different violations, the police chief has final authority. Turner’s decision was called into question after Cadeau shot Hall in 2017. When asked to explain the actions of her predecessor, then Chief Shields told the AJC: “I don’t have the benefit of knowing what information Sergeant Cadeau provided to Chief Turner that allowed him to keep his job. I feel confident in saying Chief Turner did not take any disciplinary hearing lightly.”

OPS Major Hampton says that APD leadership has overruled an OPS designation in an excessive force case four times since 2014, and that sometimes officers might tell the chief more candidly what might be going on in their personal lives that affected the incident: “It’s helpful to remember that, as officers, we’re still human beings.”

APD fired Cadeau in May 2017 after an internal investigation found he had used excessive force by shooting Hall. The Fulton DA’s office later indicted Cadeau, who was sentenced earlier this year to 30 years on probation for Hall’s shooting. Hall and his wife have filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta, former APD police chief George Turner, and Cadeau, which is still pending.

Hall says incidents like his show that police are given too much discretion—and that complaints against them are not treated with enough transparency. “You can’t let a cop build up a rap sheet without doing something,” he says. “If they get in trouble, that needs to be public information.”

Closed OPS records are in fact public information, but APD’s current software limits the extent to which the department can share OPS data with the public. Under the court-ordered reforms in the wake of the Eagle raid, APD is required to maintain data about the resolution of misconduct complaints. But when Atlanta and Type Investigations requested that data, and after we compared 86 excessive force case files against that data, we found that nearly a quarter of them had incorrect or missing dispositions. In a demonstration, APD was able to prove that its internal data is accurate; the inaccuracies in the data they handed over were caused by a flaw in the exporting process. After Atlanta pointed out the exporting discrepancies, Major Hampton says OPS is looking into different software. Sergeant Dean says transparency is the goal. “We are very open to the public,” he says.

When asked whether the plaintiffs in the Eagle raid, who are entitled to data about closed civilian complaints about APD officers per a 2018 court order, have also received data with inaccuracies, their lawyer Grossman said in a statement: “We have concerns about the accuracy of some of the information the City has provided and about the completeness of the City’s compliance with the 2018 Court Order.”

In 2006, two days before Thanksgiving, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was sitting in her yellow Bankhead home around dinner time when APD officers illegally rammed into her house, acting on a “no knock” warrant obtained on false information. Johnston fired a single shot with her .38 revolver. Officers returned fire with a barrage of bullets, five of which hit and killed her. To cover up their actions, officers planted drugs in her home. Four officers would receive prison time; the city ultimately paid a nearly $5 million settlement; and federal prosecutors would investigate the “culture of misconduct” plaguing APD. As a result, City Council created the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, an independent citizen-led police oversight authority meant to be a beacon of police accountability.

The ACRB receives around 150 civilian complaints per year against Atlanta police and ends up investigating around 60. But it only makes recommendations for how officers should be disciplined and has no authority to force APD to abide by its guidance. In January, at the ACRB offices tucked away on the ninth floor of City Hall, ACRB director Lee Reid explained the board’s biggest flaw by taking out two blank pieces of paper on his desk: one, theoretically, an APD internal investigation, and the other, the parallel ACRB investigation. He plays the part of the APD chief. “Let’s say I like Case A better. It also happens to be my investigation. So, I’m going to go with Case A, regardless of what the other one says.”

In 2019, APD at least partially agreed with 41 percent of ACRB’s sustained findings—up from an average of less than a quarter over the preceding five years. But at the end of 2019, ACRB was still waiting for an APD response on 61 percent of its 2019 recommendations—even though city law requires a response from APD within 30 days. (OPS Major Hampton says slow responses by APD were a result of personnel transitions—during which “sometimes, you discover things that were not being done”—and that APD is now caught up with all response letters.)

“You can’t let a cop build up a rap sheet without doing something.”

The ACRB tried to warn APD about Johns, the officer who later went to prison for assaulting 15-year-old Payne. In 2014, Johns struck a man who had fled after Johns and another officer tried to pull him over on his scooter. ACRB sustained the allegations and recommended Johns be suspended for five days; APD’s internal investigation, however, did not find enough evidence of excessive force. While Reid says ACRB has a good working relationship with APD, over time, the lack of consistency between its investigations and the APD’s “creates the appearance that you’re just going through the motions [with the ACRB cases], as opposed to really giving them the due examination that they need.”

Major Hampton says APD does take ACRB’s recommendations seriously, and that the disconnect in findings comes from the fact that citizens often “don’t understand our policy and, a lot of times, do not understand the laws that we’re able to operate under.” For example, ACRB might call an arrest false or improper, he says, “but when we get the file, we understand that the arrest was proper, based on the facts of the circumstance.”

In June, in response to protests over police violence, ACRB received a $427,000 increase in funding, which Reid hopes to use to conduct more proactive analyses of APD practices and hire community engagement personnel. (ACRB’s existence isn’t well-known throughout the city: Over the summer, City Councilmember Antonio Brown said that he had to tell protesters calling for a civilian oversight board that one already existed.) And since the protests over the killings of George Floyd and Brooks, Mayor Bottoms issued orders mandating that all future deadly use of force cases go before ACRB (instead of just ones in which a civilian filed a complaint to the board), encouraging APD and ACRB to share investigative information (which hasn’t always happened), and exploring whether to require a third party to review disagreements between the two agencies. But the board still won’t have the power to discipline and terminate officers—perhaps “the most important power ACRB can have,” says Tiffany Roberts, a community organizer and lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Fulton County DA Paul Howard, a 20-year incumbent, campaigned for reelection this summer by touting the aggressive charges his office filed against Rolfe—for felony murder and 10 other charges in the Brooks killing—and against six other APD officers for the Tasing and battery of two college students, Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim, during a protest. APD’s then Chief Shields fired four officers for the Tasing incident, saying APD needed to hold itself accountable for the escalation of a “low-level encounter”—but then criticized the DA’s charges as political.

Two of those six officers, as well as Rolfe, have filed suit against the city for firing them prior to an investigation, notice, or disciplinary hearing. And Howard’s critics have pointed out that the DA’s office has not yet made a decision to prosecute in several other police shooting cases that drew considerably less attention than Brooks’s. In the August run-off election, one of the most vocal of those critics, Fulton DA chief deputy Fani Willis, trounced Howard, winning nearly three-quarters of votes.

The decisions by APD leadership to take action against officers before investigations were complete have left the rank-and-file concerned that their jobs are at the risk of political impulses, two officers told us. They also said the terminations have harmed the chance for real progress at APD. “We don’t know how to operate in an environment where our rules and policies change on a whim,” says Sergeant Segura, the police union president. Segura points out that Rolfe’s and the other officers’ use of force may have been justified under APD procedures and preexisting case law, which consider whether such force was reasonable and necessary for an officer to make an arrest or defend himself. At the very least, he says, the officers deserved an investigation that adhered to APD’s own protocol. “We just want to know where we stand, and right now, we stand on sand.”

APD says at least 45 officers have resigned since the protests started in May, though Segura says the number is likely higher. “[Officers] have been actively engaged in ending riots, making arrests in very difficult situations,” APD Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum says. “They’ve seen officers indicted with no investigation completed. And that’s a difficult space.”

Tom Gissler, a four-year APD patrol officer and community liaison officer for Little Five Points, resigned in June because of the DA’s indictments and APD’s firing of Rolfe and others. In his resignation letter, which was shared on social media, he wrote: “I came into APD to be a help. A change agent for good. . . . I had peace with taking a bullet, but I wasn’t good with catching a case for doing my job or for being so obviously abandoned by ALL of those in a position to stand up for truth.” He said in an interview: “The police exist mainly to be the whipping dog from every side.”

Officers point to the debate over Tasers as an example of the bind they’re in. When police used a Taser against Young and Pilgrim, the Fulton County DA’s office considered its use a deadly weapon to justify felony charges against the officers involved. But in the case of Rayshard Brooks, the fact that Brooks had wrested a Taser from police just before he was shot didn’t seem to help the officers’ case that a response of deadly force was warranted. (District Attorney Howard has said that, when Brooks was shot, the Taser was inoperative and out of charges, posing no threat to Rolfe.)

Segura says that if APD officers don’t feel secure in making the call as to when to protect themselves, they’ll be hesitant to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations—“because the only thing that leads to is you getting fired”—and therefore won’t be able to effectively do their jobs. “And the citizens are the ones who ultimately suffer.”

We ask police to do many jobs: Enforce a curfew and clear protesters from the road. Be a grief counselor and a crosswalk guard. Remove the man sleeping in his car, and stop cars from racing on city streets—but don’t chase them. True reform, critics say, requires a shift in what police are tasked with—and what infractions are worth risking a life to enforce.

In cities like San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon, unarmed medics and mental health workers—not police—respond to calls for welfare checks or overdoses. (Of the 24,000 calls in 2019 where the Eugene program responded, medics called for police backup less than 1 percent of the time.) “Anything that starts to reduce the amount of contact between officers and civilians, that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Bervera, the director of the Racial Justice Action Center. “That is how you decrease the potential for harm. That is how you start investing in other ways of safety that are much more effective.”

At a virtual City Council meeting in July, Atlantans left more than 13 hours of public comment messages on the city’s voicemail line—most of the callers arguing for or against defunding the police—forcing the meeting to last until 4 a.m. While most constituents were urging cuts, a push by some City Council members to withhold $73 million from the APD budget was narrowly defeated; instead, APD received a $12 million budget increase in June for 2021 raises. Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet, who represents southwest Atlanta neighborhoods, says every constituent she’s spoken with has told her not to take officers off the street.

This is Atlanta’s dilemma with policing, says Bervera. On the one hand, some residents want less police presence and more cautious use of force. But they also want to continue to rely on police to maintain their quality of life. Of course, when laws criminalize nonviolent offenses like panhandling and the public calls on officers to enforce those laws, the resulting interaction can become violent. (Several cases of APD excessive force in recent years began with a stop for a low-level crime: jaywalking, sleeping in a car, shoplifting.) “When the police do something or overstep the bounds, they get thrown under the bus and seen as the villain, [when instead] it’s our elected officials who are passing the laws and defining what a police department does,” Bervera says.

Overstreet disagrees that society asks too much of police officers and believes the city needs to invest more in the department for deescalation and other training: “I expect them to be a community partner,” she says.

One promising solution embraced by the city is the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) initiative, which since 2017 has provided links to services like housing, substance use support, or employment to Atlantans accused of low-level crimes. PAD has been a pilot partner with APD for the past three years; it only has been available to certain neighborhoods during limited hours and only when police refer the people they intend to arrest to PAD. (During the last quarter of 2019, 432 arrests could have been diverted to PAD, but APD officers only diverted 24, or 5 percent, of those.) In June, City Council more than quadrupled PAD’s annual budget to nearly $2 million, which it will use to expand across the city in the next year. Deputy Chief Schierbaum, who has championed the program, says police should bear less of the burden created by “a lack of proper mental health structure in the state of Georgia, lack of proper programs to assist citizens who have drug dependencies, alcohol dependencies. . . . We cannot arrest ourselves out of our societal challenges.”

Grossman, the attorney in the Eagle case, argues that civilian leaders need to set police objectives and police policy—not the other way around. “These are our public servants,” he says. “We have a right to know and to have a say in how they’re trained and what we expect them to do.” When that training fails, or when those expectations are too great, “we pay the price—whether there’s greater risk to officers, greater risk to the future Rayshard Brooks, or greater risk to the public in general.”

After the death of his son, Thomas says he joined a tragic club made up of the family members of those killed by Atlanta police. When APD and federal officers on a police task force shot Jamarion Robinson in August 2016, two months after officer Burns killed Thomas’s son, Thomas says Robinson’s uncle called him, looking for advice. “I told him to fight,” Thomas says, “to make sure it didn’t get swept under the rug.”

Thomas and Robinson’s family talk often, about their cases or to share resources, and attend protests organized to draw attention to the deaths of their loved ones. Thomas is grateful to have found others who understand his experiences, but he’s saddened that the club keeps growing: “You never finish mourning, because it always happens to someone else.”

When Thomas heard about Rayshard Brooks’s killing, he thought, Here we go again. He watched hours of footage from the incident—“every video, every angle, every bodycam”—trying to answer a question: Did they do the same thing they did to my son? “I’m looking for patterns, and I do it unconsciously,” he says. “You need to try to understand why. Why does this keep happening?”

Improved police training and mental health checks and early warning systems might not have done enough to save Brooks. APD officers get trained at nearly twice the state average, but that isn’t a fail-safe for the variety of split-second decisions officers make: Mere months before shooting Brooks, Rolfe spent hours in deescalation and deadly force trainings.

“That’s impossible to calculate,” Thomas says of the rate at which training and early warnings could prevent police shootings. But he’s hopeful that the momentum around Brooks’s case will bring the kind of lasting change that failed to materialize after other high-profile cases. As Thomas watched the 40-minute video during which Brooks and APD officers initially had a calm, respectful, professional encounter, he thought of the multiple possibilities for how the night could have ended. The knowledge that so many others have been watching it too—and drawing the same conclusions—is what makes the current climate in Atlanta so extraordinary. “This is a moment that’s going to [require us to] say, Something is wrong. This could have gone a different way.

Additional reporting by Camille Pendley.

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

Out on Film launches a “virtual theater” for this year’s LGBTQ+ film festival

Out on Film Festival 2020
A still from the film Cicada

Courtesy of The Film Collaborative

When the late Atlanta playwright and arts activist Rebecca Ranson founded Out on Film in 1987, the annual LGBTQ festival struggled for years to find an audience. After it became an offshoot of the Atlanta Film Festival, both run for many years by IMAGE Film & Video, OOF screenings followed ATLFF’s almost as an afterthought.

“The organizers would breathe for a day and a half after the Atlanta Film Festival, then start working on Out on Film,” says Jim Farmer, OOF’s director since ATLFF relinquished control of the organization in 2008. “It’s hard for anyone to put together two film festivals in a year.”

Now an independent entity, Out on Film is one of the nation’s oldest LGBTQ+ festivals, one of the 10 largest of its kind in the U.S., and one of only three Oscar-qualifying LGBTQ+ fests. (The Best Dramatic Short winner at OOF is submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for award consideration.)

“On our 30th anniversary in 2017, we decided that it was really time to grow,” Farmer says. The schedule expanded from eight to 11 days and grew beyond its home base, Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, to hold screenings and events at two other venues. It also expanded to provide programming all year long. This year, due to COVID-19, the festival was refigured to run online, September 24 through October 4.

“We’re disappointed because so much of Out on Film is about watching and celebrating with the community and experiencing it together,” Farmer says. “On the flipside, I’m excited that going digital opens up the possibility to having online conversations” with filmmakers.

The festival is a touchstone not only for film lovers, but for writers, actors, and directors looking to connect with audiences and expand their craft. Filmmaker Chad Darnell’s “Groom’s Cake” won the Best Short in 2012, and immediately after the screening he met the man who would invest in his 2013 feature adaptation, “Birthday Cake.”

“That would never have been possible without Out on Film,” Darnell says. “The staff and volunteers have turned the festival into one of the most prestigious LGBTQ+ festivals in the country. It’s one of my favorite events of the year.”

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