Serving two masters
Is APD Chief Beverly Harvard's silence catching up with her?
As atlanta's police chief for the past seven years, Beverly Harvard has lasted by observing a simple rule: Keep quiet.
In an administration that doesn't suffer disloyalty gladly, that philosophy has held her in good stead. Since 1994, she's flown below the radar, avoiding the intense media scrutiny — if not outright criticism — that helped bring down some of her colleagues at City Hall.
One of the reasons she's been able to do that is plummeting crime rates. Atlanta, like most American cities, experienced a drop in crime since the mid-1990s — a fact chalked up to better policing and better economies.
Now, though, with the city poised to elect a new mayor, Harvard, the first black woman in the U.S. to head a major metropolitan police force, is feeling the spotlight's heat. One of the frontrunners in the mayoral election, City Council President Robb Pitts, says crime isn't the only thing that's dropped on Harvard's watch. He claims morale has taken a nosedive, too.
Her silence might be one of the reasons. When cops fought with the city to improve their pension, Harvard kept mum. When the city tried to renege on $2,000 bonuses that it had promised officers as part of the 2000 budget, she stayed quiet. And even now, with Pitts all but calling for her dismissal, she still says nothing (including to CL — our numerous requests to interview Harvard got nowhere).
Beverly Harvard joined the Atlanta Police Department in 1973. Within two years, she was off the street and behind a desk, working as an affirmative action specialist. By 1981, she'd been appointed a spokeswoman for the APD's task force for missing and murdered children.
As an administrator, she was known to seek out the opinions of others, as someone who respected the input she received. In short, she was the kind of person you might want as a boss.
Harvard became a deputy chief in 1982. In 1994, after Eldrin Bell, the flamboyant head of the force, resigned his post, Mayor Bill Campbell named Harvard acting chief. Six months later, the mayor made the title permanent and gave her a two-year contract.
Since becoming Atlanta's top cop, Harvard has presided over an overall decrease in crime in the city of Atlanta — numbers that mirror national trends — and Campbell is unequivocal in his support for her. The numbers speak for themselves, he suggests in an e-mailed statement from spokeswoman Glenda Blum Minkin.
"Having put community policing into practice, the statistics reflect the successes of the police department," Campbell says in the statement. "For example, last year's crime totals were the lowest since 1984, and were 21 percent lower than in 1993. Homicides were the lowest since 1966.
"Since 1993, juvenile arrests are down 53 percent, a clear indicator of a dramatic decrease in juvenile involvement in criminal activity."
When she took over in 1993, the police department had just emerged from scandal, a corrupt cop ring involved in both murder and robbery.
Then, in December 1995, came a shootout at a Marietta Street motorcycle shop. A ricocheting bullet from an undercover officer's gun hit and killed an unarmed customer who was laying face down on the floor.
The cops involved in the shooting were never indicted by a grand jury convened to investigate the incident.
But that's where the confidence in Harvard started to erode, according to one cop who requested anonymity. She never came out in public support of the officers, and instead suspended them without pay, the cop says. The officer believes that was a political ploy on the part of the Campbell administration.
But most puzzling, perhaps, was Harvard's recent silence on the subject of pay and pensions for Atlanta cops.
It's no secret that Atlanta cops have suffered from lousy pay and benefits — not just compared to other big metro police forces around the nation, but to local jurisdictions as well. Before pay raises in this year's budget, Atlanta cops topped out at $42,262 annually, some $8,000 less than DeKalb County's top rate and $6,000 less than Cobb's.
Retirement benefits, which were revamped during the 2001 budget process, were especially bad. After 30 years of service, an Atlanta cop could retire and expect to make only 60 percent of what he made his last year on the force. By comparison, a DeKalb County cop could look forward to making 82.5 percent. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Atlanta was losing good cops because of its crappy benefits.
So in February 2000, Atlanta cops went to work with the City Council to improve its pension program. The talks lasted through March, when upgrades finally were secured.
During more than a year's worth of negotiations, not a peep came from Harvard's office. She was invisible.
"Why wasn't she out front with us?" says one cop familiar with the negotiations. "It was disappointing. I feel like she was ordered not to say nothing. But she's under the same obligation as us. She has to follow orders ... from her superiors.
"In some of the meetings we had with her, you could tell she wanted to do something but she couldn't," the officer says.
That wasn't the last time she let her people down. During the November fight to restore $2,000 bonuses promised in last year's budget, a costly plum that the Campbell administration wanted to disappear, Harvard again stayed silent, and it was up to the cops themselves to go public, to make it too politically difficult for City Hall to turn down.
Was Harvard trying to keep her own boss happy? It's no secret that Campbell hasn't been in any hurry to curry favor with cops, after they came out in 1997 in support of his opponent, Marvin Arrington. And Campbell hasn't shown a reluctance to fire employees whose loyalty waivers. (Look at Phyllis Fraley. When Campbell caught flak for using city employees to write speeches for non-city-related events, Fraley, who handled media relations for the Atlanta Development Authority, said publicly that his predecessors had done no such thing. She was fired the same day her comments appeared in the AJC.)
So while Harvard's loyalty and ability to follow orders might have preserved her spot atop the department, it's eroded the support underneath her feet.
Still, while some cops may not like Harvard's leadership style, few say she lacks heart or good intentions. Even those critical of her performance wax kindly about Harvard the person.
"She is a fine person with a very good heart," says Chip Warren, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, a police union. "We have a lot of feelings for her. She's one of us."
Indeed, one lieutenant in the department says you can't find many instances where Harvard has done something wrong. Her detractors don't have any ammunition.
Instead of a string of specific miscues, her sins have been ones of omission.
There's a persistent feeling that she's been hamstrung by Campbell, caught "carrying the mayor's flag," as Warren says, and therefore, she takes some of the blame for lousy morale.
"There's the old saying, 'Don't shoot the messenger,'" Warren says of the criticism leveled at Harvard. "Well, sometimes the messenger has to be shot.
"This is a very good police department. The employees are so dedicated. [Campbell] has ruined it. I and most officers take that very personally."
Says Pitts: "In her defense, we don't know how good of a chief she could have been."
Says the lieutenant of the criticism of Harvard: "It's like a husband who comes home and yells at his wife for cooking chicken instead of steak when he only left money for chicken."
Harvard has been on the street, lived the life, he says. "To blame any one person is absolutely ludicrous," the lieutenant continues. It's part Harvard, part Campbell and part the citizenry itself. The taxpayers should be demanding more cops and better equipment and pay for the guys on the street, he says.
"If you paid someone to rake your yard, and he only raked half of it and wanted you to pay, you wouldn't pay," the lieutenant says. "The people in this city are willing to pay for half their yard."
Who ever heard of a corporation that doesn't even know how many employees it has? the lieutenant asks. With a budget for hundreds more, the Atlanta police department estimates that it has nearly 1,500 officers, but actual numbers might only total 1,300. Nobody really knows. Harvard, through a spokesman in an AJC story from February, says, "Yes, the city is safe with the current number of officers on the force." But that's not the feeling among the rank and file.
"They don't want you to know," Warren says about the police numbers. "First, it will show how inept they've been at retaining and attracting officers; second, if the truth was really known, it would create a dangerous situation for the citizens and the officers."
The lieutenant says there should be public outrage over this, but the very lack of it gets to the reason morale has eroded.
And instead of pushing to improve the existing department, wealthy Atlanta neighborhoods — like Buckhead and Midtown, for example — have begun paying for their own private police forces.
It's going to be extremely difficult for the next chief to restore the esprit de corps, Warren says. "I don't know that someone who is here can do that." It might take someone from outside the department.
But, he says, "We don't want someone who has worked in the [next mayor's] campaign."