Acting Police Chief George Turner walks into a conference room on the top floor of the new Atlanta police headquarters all convivial smiles and firm handshakes. His short-sleeved uniform shirt is cut a bit too tight in the arms — purposely, no doubt — making it look as if, at any moment, his biceps might burst forth from their poly-cotton cages.
The fit of his shirt may seem an irrelevant detail, but it underscores the air of steadfast confidence that Turner has endeavored to project despite the second-guessing that has dogged his July 9 nomination by Mayor Kasim Reed to serve as the city's next police chief.
Before being elevated to his interim position, Turner served as deputy chief under the unpopular Richard Pennington, who was criticized for his lack of engagement and for being MIA on more than one occasion when the proverbial shit hit the fan. It's been suggested that Reed manipulated the search process to ensure that Turner was on the list of finalists. The concern in some quarters seems to be that Turner, a 29-year veteran of the APD, won't — or perhaps, can't — be the agent of change needed to shake up the beleaguered department.
The Atlanta City Council is expected to vote on Turner's confirmation in mid-to-late August. In the meantime — and amid widespread speculation about possible new directions for the APD — CL asked him to tell us what Atlanta can expect from a Turner-led police department.
CL: You've said that targeting gang violence will rank among your priorities as police chief. What's your plan of action, specifically?
Turner: Our challenge has been dealing with local street gangs: young guys who are coming together to create criminal enterprises. We're tracking a number of those loose-knit groups. Our initiative is that we've increased the number of people who are working in [the Gangs Unit] to deal with three different situations. We always have to have a suppression piece — identifying people and putting them in jail for violating the law. Then there's the prevention piece — going into communities and talking at schools, trying to encourage young people not to get involved in gangs. Finally, we have to partner with community groups that have been successful in those areas. That's the national model. You have to suppress, you have to prevent and you have to partner.
CL: Statistics indicate that crime is down. Still, the public doesn't necessarily feel safer. How do you plan to address that disconnect?
Turner: [Mayor Reed] has done an excellent job in this budget in stating the priority in this city, and that's public safety. By adding additional officers, making sure we deploy those officers in the right places and making sure officers are out there doing what we call community policing. Community policing is really just partnering with communities, making sure that they see the same folks doing the same things and being consistent in the community. Really, it's all about relationships.
CL: What are your thoughts on Atlanta's Citizen Review Board? Will they have any teeth under your leadership?
Turner: The ordinance requires that the chief of police discipline officers for refusing to speak before the CRB. I'll abide by that. We want to make sure that we encourage citizen oversight. I think that having a Citizen Review Board in some form is absolutely what we need to have in place. Do I think that the present model is the best model? I think research will tell you that it's not. I've encouraged a relationship with the Citizen Review Board and I've encouraged our officers to speak in front of the Citizen Review Board.
CL: If the current model isn't best, what is?
Turner: We have an investigative model [a CRB conducts its own investigation, simultaneous to the police department's Internal Affairs office or the Office of Professional Standards]. The second model is the audit model [a CRB makes recommendations based on a completed IA or OPS case file]. That's the system that's working more successfully throughout the country.
CL: There's been pretty widespread criticism of your predecessor, Chief Pennington. That said, are there policies he implemented that you'll keep in place?
Turner: One of the things that I credit Chief Pennington with is making sure that we're a more professional, more educated police department. Giving officers the opportunity to go back and complete their degrees, and go to outside training that prepares them for the next level of leadership in our department.
CL: What's the yardstick by which you'll measure the success of the department?
Turner: Our mission is clear. Our first mission is to reduce crime. Whatever people say about the numbers — the numbers are the numbers. And, of course, every chief of police around the country is judged by the numbers, so I want to make sure that crime is statistically down first. Our second mission is to improve the quality of life in communities. How do you judge that? Well, you judge that by the conversations you have with citizens; we'll do surveys and get with the (neighborhood planning units) to make sure we're improving the quality of life of our citizens and the visitors who come into this city.
CL: There have been serious issues with the city's 911 system, such as unreasonable wait times. How will you fix it?
Turner: We're making strides to improve it already. Really, about a year ago, our 911 center was in ruins. Since that time, we are in a great space, we hired every vacant position we had open and we trained those folk in the center. And, ultimately, we hired a new 911 director. We had times when our answer point was at 45 seconds per call on average, and they're now down within seven seconds. The national standard is answering 90 percent of your calls within 10 seconds and 95 percent of your calls within 20 seconds. We far exceed that and we're still working to get even better. [Also], the administration is working to stand up a 311 [non-emergency] line.
CL: The AJC reported that 147 officers were hired during the first six months of this year. That's good, because everyone seems to agree there need to be more officers on the streets. How do you reconcile the quantity of officers needed with the quality of officers the community expects?
Turner: I really want to make sure that citizens understand that we have not relaxed our standards. We have a goal of hiring 350 officers this calendar year. And that is to deal with attrition and the vacancies we currently have. I worked in that [area] for a number of years and if you get 100 applicants, you might hire one. That's the scrutiny with which we look at our applicants.
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