Six Takeaways from Phase One of SCHR’s Community Safety & Police Violence Town Hall Series
By Tyler Gay, Microsoft Policy Research Fellow at SCHR
Over the past eight months, I’ve had the privilege of traveling across Atlanta as a policy researcher with the Southern Center for Human Rights. Alongside a fabulous team, including SCHR Movement Policy Counsel Devin Franklin, Public Policy Director Tiffany Roberts, and Microsoft Communications Fellow, Abby Cook, I have been tasked with collecting data to help educate Atlanta residents about use of force practices, disparities in police violence, and community-oriented policy alternatives. To date, we have led six town hall conversations (one per Atlanta police zone), concluding the first of three phases for our Community Safety and Police Violence Town Hall series.
As we embark on the next phase of our project, we want to take the time to reflect on the work – and the central takeaways – thus far.
First takeaway: Racial inequality persists in Atlanta policing practices.
As a city with a majority Black population (and police force), racial inequality remains at the center of Atlanta’s approach to public safety. For example, though data shows that half of arrests by the Atlanta Police Department (APD) are for “low-level” and “non-violent” offenses, Mayor Andre Dickens has argued for expanding the police force to “address violent crime.” This disconnect highlights the racial discrimination inherent in policing practices: Black residents account for 90% of APD arrests and are nearly 15 times more likely than white residents to be arrested for minor offenses. Rather than addressing racially biased policing, the mayor’s proposal to hire more officers will likely only exacerbate these disparities.
Black Atlantans are also disproportionately vulnerable to police violence. According to The Police Scorecard, a national database on policing encounters, APD reports more instances of excessive force and police killings than most other departments. Black Atlantans, particularly Black men, are overwhelmingly subject to police use of force practices. For 2021-2022, Black men have constituted close to 3 out of 4 individuals experiencing police use of force. Black women are also over-represented. Almost nine people out of 10 killed by APD were Black.
Second Takeaway: The most effective way to reduce police violence against citizens is to reduce police contact with citizens.
Much of the national and local conversation around reducing policing violence has been centered around reforming subjective officer behavior— establishing prerequisites that control when officers can use force and what level of force can be used. This conversation pre-supposes that every interaction is necessary to promote community safety and leaves no room to robustly consider how the dynamics of police violence change if we can avoid the most harmful police-citizen encounters.
These town halls have allowed us dig below the surface-level discourse which has defined the police violence conversation for so long. For example, by putting traffic stops and encounters with persons suffering from mental illness under the microscope, participants could see that these disproportionately harmful encounters are avoidable. Our communities will be safer if other trained professionals handle these interactions, and if unnecessary vehicle stops are eliminated altogether.
Third takeaway: There is significant power in community voices.
Creating opportunities for Atlanta residents to express their vision for public safety was a top priority in the project’s first phase. Amid a rather statistic-driven presentation, the best insights always seemed to come from residents voicing their experiences with police – a humbling reminder that a person lives behind every data point.
Responses from the community have been relatively consistent: invest more in their vulnerable neighbors. Affordable housing, expanding mental health care services, economic investment, maintaining a healthy food supply, and even protection from police were among the public safety alternatives listed. Notably, according to a 2021 report by the Brookings Institute, most of these strategies have proven more effective in reducing crime than punitive measures.
Fourth takeaway: Atlanta needs more outreach for existing resources.
Another thing that became clear during the town halls was the need for more outreach regarding programs related to reducing police violence. Many attendees were unaware of the Use of Force Dashboard, even though it is designed to promote accountability and transparency by APD. Similarly, several were unfamiliar with Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (PAD), a city-wide service diverting mentally ill and chronically impoverished individuals from the criminal legal system and connecting them with rehabilitative resources.
Undeniably, the Dashboard and PAD are important steps forward in advancing public safety; however, public awareness is necessary to maximize their benefits. It remains unclear what portion of the public knows about these resources, and as both are relatively new, Atlanta should ensure these services are visible and accessible to all.
Fifth takeaway: Better (and more accurate) data is necessary to advance public safety.
In preparation for town halls, we found data transparency by APD to be a significant issue. Even amid new policies requiring APD to report instances of force publicly (the Use of Force Dashboard), data remains insufficient.
For example, there is little-to-no accessible information regarding racial or socioeconomic disparities in use-of-force practices within each respective APD zone. Such information is necessary to target trust-building across Atlanta’s many uniquely diverse communities. This dearth of data essentially halted our initial objective to tailor presentations to each zone. As a result, we largely relied on city-wide, statewide, and nationally representative datasets. However, it is also important to note that even when city-wide demographic data is available from APD, it can take months to get updated information. There’s also good reason to believe APD’s self-reported data is inaccurate. For example, in one recent independent review of APD protocols, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) outlined data inaccuracy as one of their key findings:
“PERF… reviewed APD’s use-of-force dashboard, which includes data from 2019 and 2020. PERF found discrepancies between the three use-of-force data sources—Excel data, annual reports, and the dashboard. For example, in the use-of-force dashboard, there were a total of 288 incidents in 2019 and 213 in 2020. However, in the annual report, there were a total of 373 incidents in 2019 and 380 in 2020. There were additional data discrepancies, including officer and suspect demographics, use-of-force methods, and watch type (page 69).”
Negligent practices such as these are part of why only half of Americans (and just 27% of Black Americans) report trust in the police. We found similar levels of community skepticism towards APD. In at least half of our town hall conversations, attendees raised questions surrounding the accuracy of self-reported APD data. Such findings have amplified our call for more transparent and accurate information regarding APD’s interactions with the public.
Sixth takeaway: We’ve found overwhelming support for our proposed policy solutions.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway has been the overwhelming support for SCHR’s proposed policy solutions. In total, we workshopped seven recommendations: (1) requiring more comprehensive and accurate data reporting that could be audited by a third party, (2) decriminalizing most of Atlanta’s local ordinances, (3) requiring APD to deprioritize drug and quality of life offenses, (4) funding wrap-around services for individuals facing criminal prosecution, (5) decriminalizing the traffic code, (6) banning all forms of police quota and point systems that incentivize arrests, and (7) redirecting a portion of APD funding to expand PAD services.
According to preliminary data from our post-town hall survey, at least 90% of attendees so far are in support of all these policy alternatives. The enthusiasm we’ve seen for community-oriented solutions indicates many Atlanta residents are driven to address the root causes of police violence. Moving forward, we hope to expand upon our proposed policies as we continue these conversations. We will conclude the Community Safety and Police Violence series with a comprehensive brief outlining the project’s data narrative, detailed policy recommendations, and the community feedback obtained along the way.
To that end, we are excited to launch the second phase of the project: Cross-town Conversations, where people from different zones can come together to continue the conversation about policing in Atlanta. Our first conversation will be hosted at the Little Five Points Community Center on April 27th, and our second conversation will be hosted at Paradise Baptist Church on May 10th. To register for either of these events, please go to the following link: bit.ly/crosstownatl