News - The full interview with police chief nominee George Turner
CL: You've said that targeting gang violence will rank among your priorities as Police Chief. How can that be accomplished?
Turner: Well, the truth is, if you look at what's going on in our city, we talk about traditional gangs — the Crips, the Bloods, some of the Hispanic gangs like MS 13, and some of the national gangs — we don't see a whole large amount of national street gangs in the black community. However, there are some pretty consistent Hispanic national gangs in and around Atlanta. And, so, our challenge has been dealing with local street gangs; young guys who are coming together who are coming together to create criminal enterprises. They break into people's homes, they're selling drugs really just to create that network of criminals. And, the issue as we've seen ... we're tracking a number of those loose-knit groups that we call gangs, the state definition defines them as gangs as they come together to create a criminal enterprise. But, our initiative is that we've increased the number of people who are working in gangs, to first, to deal with three different situations: we always have to have a suppression piece, that is that we're identifying people and putting them in jail for violating the law. Then there's the prevention piece, that is, we're going into communities and talking at schools, trying to encourage young people not to get involved in gangs. Finally, we have to partner with communities and community groups that have been successful in those areas, we work along with them and bring them into some of the areas that we've been successful in. We've got three Police Athletic League centers that we encourage young people to go to. We generally have between 200 and 220 young people a day in those three centers, where they are working with uniformed patrol officers who are there everyday to build relationships and work as mentors in the community. And there are so many community programs that we're working collectively with. When I talk about gangs I always talk about the Police Executive Research forum. They pull together 100 chiefs of police form around the country who talk about what we need to do as police chiefs around gangs. In that space of those 100 police chiefs who came together — of course, we completed a survey here in Atlanta to participate in that, as well — and all that came out of that national survey, it talked about those three areas that we're already in. That's the national model. You have to suppress, you have to prevent and you have to partner. I felt pretty good that we were doing what they were suggesting, but we got to do more partnering. We got to because giving a young person something to hold onto is a really main piece. They suggest that you have to give young people a chance to make legitimate money so they can take care of themselves. Of course, young people who are involved in gangs are really generated toward that because they are looking for a way to provide something for themselves, someplace to belong.
CL: So, with whom do you partner to give kids a way to make legitimate money if that's the problem?
Turner: Since January we've had a number of different sources who wanted to do just that. To work with us. Alphi Phi Alpha, it's a black fraternity, one of the oldest black fraternities in the country. Their national office came to talk with us about how we could partner with some intern programs and some after-school care stuff. I talked with the Nation of Islam, of all folk. They really are, of course, very prevalent within the black community. They've partnered with the police commission in Chicago to work with street gangs, and they want to partner with us in Atlanta to do the same thing. These are conversations that I've had just this year, and it's really just picking through which ones we want to partner with because we want to make sure that the opportunity to partner makes sense for us to really get to the bottom of trying to help young people.
CL:What are you hearing from the community as far as their primary public safety concerns?
Turner: Well, you know, I think. I'm in my 29th year, this month is my 29th anniversary with the police department. I was born and raised in this city also, and when you talk to the community — and we do a lot of that; I've been to more than 87 or 88 different community associations — and in talking to folk, they're really looking for a police department that has integrity, that's accountable to citizens, that's involved in the community. And that's what we've tried to deliver the entire time I've been in this role, and we will continue to do that. That's exactly what our citizens want. They want a department that they can approach, police officers that's beyond reproach and have high integrity. They want them to be involved and they want me to be involved. And that's what I've done. I go to calls, I go to roll call; I'm in the community. And not just myself, the entire command staff. You know, you have to get out and set that example, but I expect our commanders to be out in the community and to be accountable to citizens.
CL: Statistics indicate that crime is down. Still, people don't necessarily feel safer. How do you plan to address that disconnect?
Turner: Mayor Reed has done an excellent job in this budget, for instance, in stating the priority in this city, and that is public safety. By adding additional officers, making sure that we deploy those officers in the right place, 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 folk doing the same things and being consistent in the community. Determining how communities want to be policed, working collectively, to resolved problems in a community. Community policing is a catch phrase. Really it's all about relationships. We do that by stating our goals, stating our intents and standing firm on what we say we're going to do and being accountable to citizens.
CL: What are your thoughts on neighborhood patrols? Should it be necessary for residents to pay off-duty officers to patrol their neighborhoods?
Turner: I would hope that we will get to that. We have a challenge with just the sheer number of officers we have out on patrol. We have an obligation to do everything that we can with the resources we have. We do a decent job. I don't say that we've totally turned a corner. We won't. The mayor says it perfectly: we have an obligation to make Atlanta the safest city in America, and that's our goal. We've got a long ways to go. Should communities do their patrol? I think that you'll find that the economy has forced a number of those communities to either reduce the number of days that they have patrol on and they are partnering more closely with the precinct commanders to find out exactly what those gaps are. That's part of what I call a true partnership. You know, I would always encourage citizens to do all they can to protect their own properties — within the law. Those neighborhood patrols are very positive. If you look at big cities around the country, there's not anything different than what you see around the country. The last thing I would do is encourage them to discontinue that service. Even when we have the additional 100 officers hired, we wills till not be able to put a police officer on every corner, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And I don't know if the society we live in really want that. But I do think that what it will do for us, is to help us to continue to grow our police department, deal with issues as our city swells to above a million every day with visitors coming in that we have an obligation to serve, and being able to make good decisions with the limited resources that we have, at the same time trying to partner with other agencies that operate inside our police department, like the university police, the state patrol and those entities that work inside the city. Relationships is really the key word to all of this, and I think we're doing a good job of that.
CL: You've suggested increasing the number of police zones from six to seven. To what end?
Turner: Let me just correct that. Under the last administration, there was a plan that suggested the city could support and should support a seventh precinct and that the geographical area of the precincts that we presently have are simply too large. I'll give you an example: Zone 2 They have less calls for service, but the mileage that represents Zone 2 is better than 38 square miles. That's a huge space. At the same time, there are only 11 beats in that 38 square miles, so you can imagine how difficult it would be for one officer to patrol the areas that he or she is responsible for. So, the recommendation, we are working on three options. We had a mandate by council, first of the year, to do a beat redesign for the city. We had 180 days to produce it to council. At the end of the recess, we'll plan a work session to present our findings and what our recommendations will be to the council. We worked really late last night to try to figure out what plans we plan to move forward. We have some challenges, if you can imagine, to what's happened in our city since the last big redesign. Atlantic Station was not there, all of the developments around that area ... you have a growth in this community, a change, for instance, what's happened in Zone 1. When we did our last beat redesign, I was a precinct commander in Zone 1 and we had 11 housing projects there. There are no housing projects in Zone 1 now. But if you think about 8 years in a major city, the major changes that can take place in that time, we have to take all of those elements, so we've done that. It's a sheer numbers game, looking at what the calls for service are for the actual square miles that we have the beats presently in. And, so, every change that you make when you start talking about redesigning beats and zones, there's an economic impact on the city's budget, so we have to make that recommendation to the city.
CL: The beat redesign that you were working on last night, was a seventh zone included as part of that?
Turner: Yes, it definitely was. That's only one of three choices that we'll present to council. We have a lot of pressure from communities about the size of our precincts. They are too large when you compare density and the time that officers spend patrolling the area that they're responsible for.
CL: So, it's about proximity?
Turner: Not just proximity, but calls of services also for instance. I'll give you a prime example: beat 202, which is in the upper outskirts of Buckhead toward Cobb County. They have very few calls for service. In fact, that beat has fewer calls for service than any beat of the 68 beats that we have citywide. However, it's just so huge. How do you determine how to put an additional car in that beat when there are fewer calls for service than any other beat in the city? But at the same time, when you talk to that community they want to be considered as part of reducing that beat. Those are the challenges that we have.
CL: What are your thoughts on Atlanta's Citizen Review Board? Will they have any teeth under your leadership?
Turner: The ordinance is clear. 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. But, with that said, do I believe we need to have citizen oversight? Absolutely. Do I think there's a consistent pattern of officers violating folks' rights? I do not think that's the case in this police department. If you look at the results of what the Citizen Review Board have come back with in their findings, they don't find that either. It's good that an outside source tell that story as opposed to us telling that story. So, I encourage a relationship with the citizen review board and I've encouraged our officers to speak in front of the citizen review board. If you look at the majority of their findings, if they're different than ours, it's different because the officer refused to speak and membners of the CRB only have the testimony of the complainant. So, the Citizen Review Board had no other choice than to deal with the information they have. What's happened since that time, we have encouraged our officers to speak to them. Tthe union represents a lot of these officers, and they may recommend something different, so I can't control what these officers ultimately do. I have an obligation to abide by the ordinance, and I'm prepared to do that.
CL: If the current model isn't best, what is?
Turner: I think if you look at what's going on around the country, there are two distinct models. We have an investigative model. What that is, the CRB can investigate simultaneously during the OPS investigation or they can wait and of course be given all of the information that's generated in the OPS complaint, and then of course do their investigation and write their findings up. The second model is the audit model, which really gives a citizen review board citizen oversight review to look at a closed OPS or internal affairs complaint, they review it, and if there are any additional questions that they have for the officer or the investigative file, they send that back to the internal affairs office, those questions are answered and then sent back to the committee. The committee then makes a recommendation on the actual file that's completed. 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'd keep in place?
Turner: There were a number of policies that were implemented during his 8-year tenure. One of the things that I credit Chief Pennington with is making sure that we're 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. That's a policy that he implemented that before he got here just simply was not something that we had in place. I'm a prime example of that. Just by being in that environment, it encouraged me to go back and complete some degrees with various different advanced trainings so that I can be prepared to take this role that I'm in now. So, that's one thing that I don't think that we'd ever turn back from. We have to have a better-educated work force.
CL: Are there any policies that he implemented that you'd specifically want to change?
Turner: Well, you know, it's small, but I'll tell you. When I first came on, our chief was absolutely adamant about not letting officers wear a skullcap. Two weeks in, I did an official change, and put an APD skullcap out for every officer. You know, the truth is, our officers were violating that policy anyway. It would get cold, and we go out to the precinct and they'd have every single kind of hat you can imagine, so I thought that we'd standardize what's out there and hold officers accountable to the hat that they put on their head.
CL: What's the yardstick by which you'll measure the success of the department?
Turner: It's Kinda three-fold. 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 judge 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 some surveys and get with the NPUs to make sure that we're improving the quality of life of our citizens and the visitors who come into this city. Third we have got to continue to partner. If our visits and partnerships are up by 50 percent this year, we're tracking those partnerships. How many community street watches have we established? How openly and collectively are we working together? And how do citizens receive the police department? That has to be one of the benchmarks. If the citizens don't trust our police department, then we've got a problem. I think it's important that we determine which officers do not live up to our standards and we get rid of them. We've been doing that also.
CL: There have been serious issues with the 911 system, such as unreasonable wait times . How will you fix it?
Turner: We are making strides to improve it already. I'll tell you just a brief history of what happened with our 911 system. The Atlanta Police Department, back in 1995, put up what was, at the time, a state-of-the-art 911 facility. It was just before the '96 Olympics. We had a lot of federal money, and we built this new center. It was at City Hall East. Great center, but technology changes so quickly. So, what happened from 1995 up to 2009, we had just patched things together to get us to 2009. Ultimately, what we did in 2009, we bought a brand new digital radio system that cost the city $43 million. We also changed our Computer Aided Dispatch. We also picked up our old center and moved to a new location. We changed our telephone system and everything that stood there. At the same time we were faced with shortages because there were freezes because of the economy and we couldn't hire folk, and our leadership was lacking. It was formula for failure. Really about a year ago, our 911 center was in ruins. When we moved our center back in March 2009, we moved to a new facility, with new technology, with shortages in personnel. We had horrible times for answering the phone. What we did at that time, was bring a consultant in to look at what our issues were and they were just what I said: they were around technology, they were around shortages in personnel and it was around the leadership in our center. Since that time, we are in a great space, we have the best and the most advanced center that AT&T produces, we hired every vacant position that 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 ten seconds and 95 percent of your calls within 20 seconds. We far exceed that and we're still working to get even better.
CL: So, you're saying it has already improved?
Turner: Oh, absolutely. When I was the deputy chief of police, I went out into the community the first complaint I got was the 911 center. And, my benchmark now is that when I go out into the community I never get a complaint about 911. And I've solicited. I'll say, give me a show of hands of the people who've had to call 911 in the past month, and people's hands go up. And what was your experience? They answered right away, they were professional. I think we've got nothing but successes, but we still need to get better. We will get better.
CL: Is a non-emergency number something that's worth pursuing?
Turner: Absolutely. The administration is working to stand up a 311 line. Cities our size have non-emergency lines. I'll give you the real numbers. Our 911 center takes better than 1.1 million calls every year. Out of that 1.1 million, maybe 38 percent of those calls are really true 911 calls. To get to those 38 percent, the actual call takers have to filter through all of the other stuff that comes in. Citizens really apologize a lot of the time, like, 'I'm sorry, I didn't want to call 911, but I didn't have any other number to call.' When you listen to some of these calls, you really see the importance of us moving in that direction. I think this administration, under Mayor Reed's leadership will do that. Absolutely. As a matter of fact, it was a recommendation in this year's fiscal budget, but we just couldn't get the funds to support it.
CL: The APD has, in the past, experienced a high turnover rate among officers. How can that be improved?
Turner: Under the Mayor's leadership, I really believe that with the 3.5 percent step increase, if we're consistent with that it will reverse the tide of attrition. I'll give you the actual numbers. It costs the City of Atlanta about $100,000 to train an officer. How we get to that, of course, is the salary for about 11 months, and the training staff, and the facilities cost, and the recruiting staff to bring that officer on — that number comes up to about $100,000. What's happening in our police department is that the state requires an officer to spend two years with a training officer. After that two years is up, that officer can leave without any penalties. The majority of the officers we were losing, we were losing them at that one to five year range. If you look at the exit interviews, they complained about salaries, lack of increases in their salaries, and things of that nature. I'm hoping if we have that consistent step reinstated, which means we tell an officer that they will come in at this point and top out at this point, but without a step there's no way to get to the top. It is my belief that will stave that tide. We had a survey done by the Atlanta Police Foundation and it suggested that the Atlanta Police Department's attrition numbers were double what the cities that we benchmark ourselves against. And, all of those cities had step programs.
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 needs to be more officers on the street. 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 what we call a decision rule process where our investigators have those specific guidelines of what a candidate can and cannot have to be brought through the process. We have a goal of hiring 350 officers this calendar year. And that is to deal with our attrition and deal with the vacancies that we currently have. We would have to have more than 4000 applicants to hire 350 people. I worked in that space 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. Matter of fact, I have a graduation this next Tuesday and I always say in my opening remarks is that the people sitting there are the few and the proud. Because there are so many who come into the police department that make up a class ... Our failure rate in our police academy is about 21 percent. Nationally it's about 15 to 16 percent for police academy. That indicates to me that we have a very difficult police academy and that our standards are much higher than the National average. When you look at our cadets, that's a well sought after officer after working in the urban atmosphere that they're policing in. You see that when new cities are established, we had officers leaving here left and right going to those cities because of the experience they incurred working in the city of Atlanta. That's good and bad.