Q&A with George Turner

Our police chief discusses the city
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.

Let’s take the Virginia-Highland killing. Obviously, citing statistics on decreased crime goes only so far to reassure residents in a case like that.

What we have to do in those kinds of cases is be out front. We talked to the community leaders. We showed our presence. We moved resources around. We had some very good successes and partnerships with that community. We had our homicide tactical canvass, where we go out with a lot of the community leaders to assure the community that these crimes are important to us, and we’re out there shaking the bushes. We were successful in getting information. I really do believe that the community understands that they had a hand in solving that crime.
Crime Stoppers [the department’s tip line] has been a major factor in getting information from people who might be a little reluctant. Having a mechanism where people can provide that information anonymously has helped us tremendously.

It does feel, though, that the nature of crime has changed. If there was a time when it seemed you had to go looking for trouble, now trouble seems to find you. What has changed? What is it that is so emboldening criminals?

Well, we’ve got social ills in our city. Back in 1972, the city of Atlanta’s public school system had 119,000 students, the largest school system in the state of Georgia. We had a dropout rate of less than 5 percent. In 2009, we had a school system of about 48,000 students with a better-than-50 percent dropout rate. So you have young people—the majority being young, black males—who are not educated, no trade, no skills, and they’re trapped.
We also sensationalize a lot of the crimes that occur. News is on 24/7, and we constantly report on the high-profile crimes. Back in the seventies, you had three channels that ran thirty-minute newscasts two times a day. So the kind of crimes we see, you get copycats, people looking to do the same thing that one group has done successfully.
In the midst of that, we have some very aggressive goals. The mayor has asked us to reduce crime by 15 percent this year, which is a huge goal. It’s achievable, but it’s a goal that’s going to take us thinking outside the box, us doing different things related to crime fighting. We want to be the safest big city in America. If we’re able to achieve that 15 percent reduction this year on the heels of a 10 percent drop, we’ll be really close to doing just that. How do we do that? We’ve got to put up a more robust surveillance system throughout our city. We’re building a video surveillance wall that will be going up the first quarter of this year, with help from the Atlanta Police Foundation and a $1.25 million grant as well as asset forfeiture funds.

How many cameras?

Several thousand. We are trying to mimic what Chicago has done. Chicago has between nine and ten thousand cameras that they monitor from a single location. The majority of those cameras are private-sector cameras. For example, in Atlanta, CNN and Coca-Cola have outside cameras. Those feeds will be able to be driven to that centralized location. By us simply building that wall, we’ll have access to all those cameras. We have a small group of cameras that we’ll also be able to utilize in the Downtown area that are public-sector cameras. Midtown has some forty-five cameras, as well as the cameras operating in Buckhead. We’ll expand that footprint.

The civil libertarians must be loving this.

All of those fights have been fought in the courts. This is the right thing to do. If you look at what has occurred around the country when these kinds of networks have been implemented, overall crime has dropped more than 10 and as much as 40 percent.
There’s also our community policing initiative. We’ve now stood up more than thirty people in that unit. We’ve received grants. In 2009, through a stimulus grant, we got fifty officers doing something new and different, and that is talking about how we partner with communities.

You mentioned the social ills affecting Atlanta. What are your officers seeing in neighborhoods that are being gutted by foreclosures?

It’s no different than what’s happening in Detroit. Communities need life. We’re seeing four out of every five houses vacant in some of these communities. What you see is a lifeless community. The only way you sustain communities is you have folk living in the community, caring about what happens in that community. Detroit is wiping out blocks of abandoned homes and starting to plant urban gardens—farms, not gardens. You drive through English Avenue and Vine City [in Atlanta], you’ll find that homes are abandoned and vacant. The numbers are astounding. In southwest Atlanta and even southeast Atlanta, investors are buying property for $5,000 or $6,000.

So people are squatting.

Oh yes. We’ve seen a huge number of fires this winter. They’re vacant homes where people are trying to stay warm. They’re starting fires without proper ventilation. We had two last night. There’s not a night that’s gone by that we’ve not had some kind of fire. Those are homeless folks squatting in these structures, trying to stay warm.

What about the department’s efforts to get officers to live within some of these neighborhoods?

We’ll have some additional take-home vehicles that we’ll assign to some officers that live inside the city, to really stabilize some of these communities. Twenty-two percent of the folk that work in the police department live inside the city. We think we have a chance to turn that into 40 to 50 percent in the next few years. How? We’ll hire, because of attrition, better than 800 police officers in three years. We want to give those young officers opportunities to make that transition in moving into the city from the very beginning. The Atlanta Police Foundation provides a $1,000 relocation to officers moving into the city. I believe officers that have an investment in the community have a better understanding and a better drive to make that community safer.

Have you moved into the city?

I have not. I have a contract on a house in the city; just working to try to make that happen.

You grew up in Perry Homes. What was the relationship of you and your neighbors with police then?

I was born in 1959. I spent until 1968 in Perry Homes. It was a different kind of atmosphere then. I didn’t realize we were poor. I lived with my brothers and sisters and mother and father. It was home. We had a huge family. We did what kids do. I didn’t have any negative relationship with police. My folk didn’t drink liquor and act the fool. We didn’t have a whole lot of issues, you know? My folks were fortunate enough to buy a house in southwest Atlanta in 1968. That gave us an opportunity to spread out—my two brothers and four sisters. We had our nucleus within the house. When we moved from Perry Homes to southwest Atlanta, we were probably the second black family that moved onto Beecher Road. I went to elementary school at Beecher Hills Elementary, on Bollingbrook. The first year, I had two other black kids in my school. Just a year later, more than half my fifth-grade class was black. We really and truly experienced white flight during that time in the late sixties. That whole community in southwest Atlanta was a very affluent white community. It just changed. My folks were always very adamant that we were going to do better than they had. My dad was a mechanic, and my mom worked for the Atlanta Board of Education. She started working in the cafeteria at Archer High School. She got promoted and ended up managing several schools’ cafeterias. My dad was fortunate enough to purchase a gas station down the road. So we evolved.

You played football, right?

I did. I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to go to college in a family as large as mine if I didn’t get a scholarship. I was planning on going into the military. I got a scholarship to go to school at Clark College. I played football for four years, cornerback. In 2003, I was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Clark Atlanta University. I’m very proud of that.

What characterized your style?

I was a hard-nosed player. I loved to hit.

You must have been fast, too.

Yeah, you can’t play on the edge unless you have some speed. I have a son [Thad] who plays for the Patriots. He’s a cornerback, too. This was his first year. When he went to college as a wide receiver at Ohio University, they converted him to a cornerback two years into college. Of course, I always said to him, “You just don’t have the temperament to play cornerback. You’re too much of a pretty boy.” [Laughs] But he’s made the adjustment. It’s a different temperament to have to play on the defensive side of the football, especially on the edge.

As chief of police, you also need to be politically astute, dealing with City Council, the mayor, the media.

I learn by the examples I see. I worked closely with Ambassador Young when he was mayor. He really understood people. He could relate at any level he was in. Everything I saw him do, I’ve been able to apply those things. How he involved all of his team to come up with a solution to a problem. It’s important to have different opinions from different parts of a command staff. One thing I learned from Kasim Reed—he’s a very passionate person about what he’s doing around the city. He believes in our city and knows it can be great. People react to that. As passionate as I am about so many different things—my family, my relationship with God—I can be passionate about how I feel about the city and drive people to that same passion.

Let’s talk about the culture of the department. In the Kathryn Johnston case, the department settled for $4.9 million. The amount in the Eagle bar raid was $1 million. Now we’re hearing about a motorist who was pulled over and his pants taken down in public to supposedly search for drugs. What is there about the culture of the police department that allows these things to happen?

Let’s talk about the Kathryn Johnston issue. That was a very trying time for our department. We had a very small group of folk that was doing things wrong. The federal government was able to bring three of those people to justice, and now they’re in federal prison. We terminated several officers and disciplined other folk that were part of that process. I think we had a small group of people in a large organization that were doing things wrong. We disbanded that whole unit. We stood up a new and more professional and more highly trained unit to deal with the challenges of drugs in our city.
The Eagle case, we’ve had some mandates that came out of that settlement, and we’re going to get our police department right.
We’re not a corrupt police department, collectively. We have a number of folk that we’ve had to deal with, that we continue to deal with.

Regarding the Citizen Review Board, which investigates complaints against the police, you’ve disagreed with every finding of theirs that recommends an officer be punished. Yet for every decision where they’ve found the complaint to be unfounded, you’ve agreed. Is this just a coincidence?

Cities of our size need some level of civilian oversight—if nothing else, to build the kind of trust we need. We have multiple codes that we have to abide by, and the CRB has one ordinance that they have to abide by. They always finish their investigation before we do, because they don’t have to afford the officers due process.
So is it a matter of policy to disagree with their recommendations?
Well, if I’ve not completed a recommendation and the officers have not gotten their due process, I have no choice but to reject [the CRB’s] findings with the information I have at the time.

Does that undermine what the review board is trying to do?

We’re moving in the right direction. We’ve asked for an outside consultant to look at this whole model we’re operating under.

That 15 percent goal—is it a worry when crime fighting becomes a numbers game? Is it an obstacle?

I don’t look at it as an obstacle; I look at it as a challenge. Any chief of police is judged by those numbers.

Is that fair?

When you’re gauged by what kind of livable city you have by the rating you have on the FBI crime stat numbers—well, those are just the facts that we all live under.
Photograph by Jason Maris