Over the last two weeks, Atlanta police have arrested, tased, and tear-gassed protesters who took to the streets over police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. But the city is still considering a $13.6 million increase in the police department’s budget—about one-third of the entire budget increase.
Since Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms took office in 2018, she has asked for budget increases every fiscal year, and the City Council has approved them, a total of over $31 million if this latest budget passes.
Bottoms’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At a June 2 public hearing held by video conference, dozens of city residents opposed the proposed funding for the department, and some demanded that it be defunded altogether.
Council member Jennifer Ide, chairperson of the finance committee, said the city has to fulfil Bottoms’s commitment to increasing officers’ pay. “I know there’s a lot of anger and emotion coming from a lot of different directions,” Ide said. “We absolutely need to address many of the issues that were raised in these comments. But we absolutely do need to support our law enforcement officers.”
In a letter to the City Council, Bottoms said her budget fills a $58 million revenue hole from the “economic shock” of COVID-19. She proposes $40 million in spending cuts, none of which will affect the police department.
By contrast, Bottoms proposed a $1 increase to the Atlanta public defender’s office budget. “Our budget is going to stay pretty much flat,” John Tapia, deputy director of the office, told The Appeal. But he noted that there may be a greater need for public defense if the COVID-19 crisis results in a recession for the state. Kenneth Days, Atlanta’s chief public defender, also noted in a budget hearing that his office’s caseload will increase this year because more people will most likely be arrested for suspended licenses and expired registrations because of financial pitfalls fueled by the pandemic.
The City Council will vote on the budget on Monday, and it will be in Bottoms’s hands to approve or veto on June 23.
Police tase students
On May 30, the second night of the city’s curfew imposed to rein in protests, Atlanta police officers tased and assaulted two area college students.
Taniyah Pilgrim and her boyfriend Messiah Young had just found their friend, whom they had driven downtown to pick up, when officers rushed their car. According to an analysis of body camera footage by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Young started filming when officers threw their friend to the ground. Then officers turned their attention to the couple in the car.
Officers tased Pilgrim first and then Young, after breaking the driver’s side window with the butt of a rifle. Police threw them both to the pavement. The encounter unfolded on live television.
Police escorted Pilgrim to a transport vehicle with three other women, where she asked for a mask to prevent transmission of COVID-19 but did not receive one as she rode to the Atlanta City Detention Center. Police did not charge her. Meanwhile, officers took Young to Grady Hospital—he fractured his wrist and needed two dozen stitches after police threw him from the car. In a June 3 interview, Young told CNN that it took eight hours before anyone removed the remaining Taser probes from his back. The next morning, police charged Young with obstruction, but Bottoms had the charges dropped.
After a swift investigation, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard issued warrants for six officers involved in the incident: Lonnie Hood, Willie Sauls, Ivory Streeter, Mark Gardner, Armond Jones, and Roland Claud. Bottoms fired Streeter and Gardner on May 31. The other four were put on administrative leave as of June 3, the Atlanta Police Department told The Appeal. As of June 10, Hood and Jones were also fired.
Sauls is also under investigation, along with other members of a federal task force, for fatally shooting Jamarion Rashad Robinson 76 times while serving a warrant in 2016.
Convictions against officers are rare in use-of-force cases. A 2016 study found that police officers are half as likely to be convicted and incarcerated compared to the general public.
Police Chief Erika Shields supported the terminations but characterized arrests filed by Howard as “political.”
On May 30, Governor Brian Kemp called in the National Guard to patrol protests, and Bottoms implemented a nightly curfew. Kemp’s order expired on Monday, and the curfew ended on June 6. Bottoms is now said to be under consideration as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate, after her handling of the protests propelled her into the national spotlight.
Police arrest legal observer
Two days after Pilgrim and Young were tased, police arrested Asia Parks, a legal observer with the National Law Guild. Parks was working at a June 1 protest downtown, in the neon hat the group’s legal observers are known to wear, when police took her and a colleague into custody for violating the city’s curfew. At least 99 people were arrested at the protest that night, data from the Atlanta Police Department shows.
Parks said those arrested received paper-thin blue masks to protect against COVID-19, and that a packed prison bus took them to the Atlanta City Detention Center. On the bus and at the jail, she said, officers did not enforce social distancing guidelines, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. Parks told The Appeal she was detained for 17 hours, waiting to have her bond hearing over a video conference call the afternoon after she was arrested.
All told, the police arrested 532 people between May 29 and June 4, with no arrests last weekend.
Parks told The Appeal that the police’s behavior was “obnoxious” and “ridiculous,” noting that they kneel with the crowd one moment and make arrests and fire tear gas in the next. She wants to see police funding diverted into public services.
“It would be a lot better to use those funds to just give it to the community, and say, ‘How do you see public safety? How can we help you be safe without adding police officers that do not make you safe?’” she said.
Beyond police budgets
Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, told The Appeal that Atlanta needs to follow the lead of cities like Los Angeles. Mayor Eric Garcetti said he will divert $250 million in cuts from every city department into healing and health services in Black communities and “communities of color.” Up to $150 million of that money will come from the Los Angeles Police Department’s $3.2 billion budget, effectively cancelling out the mayor’s proposed budget increase for the department.
“Los Angeles leading the charge on this is really excellent because it does pave the way,” Bervera said. “I think that the call to our elected officials is to put their money where their mouth is and defund the institutions, which are harming Black communities and communities of color.”
Bervera said she wants to see Atlanta also decrease its corrections budget and divert it to other places. Bottoms’s initial budget proposal included $19 million for the city’s Department of Corrections, which Bervera and others have criticized because the mayor signed legislation in May 2019 to “close and reimagine” the city’s jail, and also because jails are hotspots for COVID-19.
But on Wednesday, the same day protesters marched from City Hall to the city detention center, demanding its closure, the mayor announced she would shrink the corrections budget to $3.5 million in order to wind down jail operations. The remaining $13.5 million will be used to “enhance and broaden community-based initiatives under the Mayor’s Office of Constituent Services,” the mayor’s office announced.
Last year, Bottoms formed a task force to find a way for the jail to serve the community in the future. But COVID-19 has delayed the group’s final meetings, said Jill Cartwright, an Atlanta organizer who served with Bervera on the task force. She feels like the goalposts keep moving now that police are taking protesters to “what is supposed to be an empty jail.”
Looking at alternatives to systems like jails and policing, Cartwright said, would help build hope for Black people. She understands why people might be skeptical, especially about abolishing or defunding the police, but the attempt alone is necessary.
“To continue to fund the sort of institution that continues to legitimize and validate the system of the police is saying I co-sign white supremacy,” Cartwright said. “It’s basically spitting in the face of Black people and all of our ancestors and saying, ‘I value capitalism over your lives.’ For me, that is the core of why the police have to go.”