Report: New legislation makes its way to Atlanta City Council

City Council will review two new forms of legislation introduced by Councilmember Antonio Brown regarding the Atlanta Police Department on Mon., July 13

An Atlanta Police Department vehicle parked during Atlanta protests on June 6, 2020. Photography: Justin Miller, 2020.

Originally published: Sun., July 12, 2020
Revised: Sun., Aug. 2, 2020 to reflect the legislations\’ original introduction that occurred earlier in July

ATLANTA — On Mon., July 13, after 45 days of consecutive Black Lives Matter protests in the city, Atlanta City Council will review two new pieces of legislation introduced by Councilmember Antonio Brown earlier in the month.

The past 45 days have seen the death of Rayshard Brooks by ex-APD Officer Garrett Rolfe at the Wendy’s on University Avenue in southwest Atlanta; multiple accounts of police brutality including Amber Jackson, Messiah Young, and Taniyah Pilgrim; mass arrests and innumerable on-the-ground accounts of tear gas, faulty detainments, kettling, and other abusive forms of crowd control by police and the National Guard; as well as multiple drive-by shootings and senseless gun violence on par with Atlanta’s history prior to the protests. APD cleared the Rayshard Brooks Peace Center on Mon., July 6, following the July 4 shooting of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner at a nearby liquor store, although there was no evidence linking protesters or community organizers to the shooting.

In response, public pressure has mounted on and off the streets, as City Council and the mayor’s office have been flooded with calls to defund police and reinvest funds into community programs. Several steps have been taken in the direction of reimagining public safety, but no steps have been taken by city leaders to defund the police. (For more information about the APD budget and how that money is spent, please read this in-depth coverage by Mainline contributor Christopher Luke.)

Just last week, City Council passed 8 Can’t Wait legislation during its full council meeting on July 6. This decision arrived after the Use of Force Advisory Council, which was created on June 10 to provide recommendations to the mayor’s office after 14 days, made its 10 recommendations to Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. On June 25, Bottoms immediately signed administrative orders on three of the recommendations.

Councilmember Brown has been a bit of a stronghold in the movement and has worked alongside organizers, even organizing marches himself and has been seen consistently marching with the people. He backed Resolution 20-R-4068, which has become known as the Rayshard Brooks Bill, as it was introduced by Councilmember Jennifer Ide, following floods and floods of emails and calls from the public to defund the police. The resolution, however, is not a step towards defunding; rather, it places $73M into a trust fund until Dec. 1, 2020, during which time the City Council and mayor’s office work together to begin to reimagine public safety. It does not affect the APD budget in FY2021, which was approved by City Council on June 21. In short, Atlanta police officers received their pay raises and there were no lay-offs.

It is important to remember during the time thousands of Atlanta citizens called their leaders pleading with them to defund the police, police were liberally using tear gas — a chemical weapon banned in war by the Geneva Convention — and other harmful tactics, such as kettling and boxing in protesters for mass arrests, in their means of crowd control. Folks have been arrested and detained wrongfully in many cases, and we have received multiple reports from sources on the ground stating they or others experienced excessive force during arrests. Further, protesters have been denied bail on personal recognizance or lighter consequences, such as receiving a citation on the scene, which are options for the misdemeanor charges protesters face. 

Overall, it appears the APD and the National Guard have been a bit overkill when it comes to their handling of peaceful protesters during the times it really mattered (i.e. during a global pandemic and during a movement confronting the country’s issues with police brutality, both of which have stemmed new sources of trauma amongst citizens). While photo opps of officers hugging protesters or videos of the National Guard doing the Macarena with protesters (both tactics used by U.S. military in the Middle East) may create an image of empathic police officers — who reportedly proceed to assault and agitate protesters after the photos are taken — it doesn’t do anything to erase the fact that many people in Atlanta have been violated by the very force that is intended to protect and serve them while exercising their constitutional right to assemble and peacefully protest.

The two pieces of legislation that will be introduced tomorrow include one resolution requesting the Atlanta Police Department “explore alternative non-lethal methods of crowd control” and one ordinance requiring that the APD provide “information and cooperate with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office as necessary to facilitate, improve the efficiency and enhance the transparency of investigations involving officer-involved shootings, incidents of serious bodily injury and accusations of sexual misconduct.”

Crowd Control Alternatives Resolution

The crowd control resolution arrives in light of “recent protests against police brutality and systemic oppression [that] have prompted calls for comprehensive police reform.” The resolution suggests that in addition to focusing on adoptive policies that address use of force and employing advanced de-escalation methods, the city should also “include a tool box of non-lethal methods to address civil unrest.” It acknowledges the fact that during recent protests, “law enforcement were perceived to have responded to protests against police brutality with brutality, by descending on the crowds in military style vehicles and using tear gas and stun grenades.” (Editor’s note: the words “perceived to” slightly disempowers the fact that law enforcement did respond to peaceful protesters with more brutality. Perceiving something happens versus something actually happening are two different things. It feels a little bit gaslight-y. We are choosing to simply acknowledge but not fixate on that part.)

The resolution offers up three examples of “non-lethal” methods of crowd control, including the “Skunk,” a “malodorant compound that is water based, biodegradable, and immediately causes individuals and crowds to cease their activities in order to avoid the putrid smell”; the BolaWrap, which is a “hand-held remote restraint device that discharges a cord that can entangle an individual to restrict movement without using any force” and used by over 100 police departments in the U.S., including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, and McDonough, Ga.; and the laser dazzler, which “may be an option and uses intense directed radiation to temporarily disable individuals with flash blindness and is not intended to cause long-term damage to eyes.”

According to one of our sources within City Council, with this reimagining, police would still carry guns. 

While this resolution may come from a good place, the idea of giving police officers new toys to use in crowd control isn’t very groundbreaking and it’s hard to believe it would be effective — especially if police officers are free to carry guns with them, anyway. Further, while passing 8 Can’t Wait legislation is a step in the right direction, it can hardly be considered significant reform; they are policies that simply should have been in place a long time ago and in fact, according to a recent article published in Harvard’s Civil Liberties Law Review, is one example of police reform that ultimately poses a major barrier to defunding. 

This resolution at first glance feels to be in the same vein of former Vice President Joe Biden stating his view of reform would be to train officers to shoot protesters in the leg instead of the heart. It strives to put new tools in the hands of police officers without addressing the deeper, intrinsic issues within the police department, such as the toxicity that runs rampant in the police force. We have also seen that de-escalation and other training sessions do not do much to change police officers’ behavior. Ex-Officer Rolfe had completed nearly 2,000 hours of training sessions, including a use of deadly force course in January and a cultural awareness training in April, before shooting and killing Brooks and the officers involved in Young and Pilgrim’s assault had also just completed de-escalation training.

Moreover, as far as know at this publication, there has been no discussion about removing officers with a violent history or excessive force complaints in their jackets; this means that the same officers would be on the streets, still with guns, but with arguably less harmful means of crowd control. While this resolution may be another step in a positive direction, it doesn’t appear to be enough on its own. Ultimately, city leaders should continue to work towards a world where police officers do not and are unable to harm or traumatize peaceful protesters at all.

It is also unclear to us where the funding for alternative methods of crowd control would come from.

We spoke with someone who works in Councilmember Brown’s office to gain more perspective on the resolution. In addition to the concerns above, we raised our eyebrows when we saw that the “Skunk” is actually a technique already used by the U.S. military in Israel. In response to this, our source told us that, the “examples shown are only just that: examples of alternative devices. This resolution basically encourages a conversation and exploration of alternative means. Community input and task force recommendations were used to introduce this resolution which is only a first step. De-escalation was at the forefront of the 8 Can’t Wait legislation that was passed. Hopefully we will be exploring other means such as mental health workers and other options for responding to non-emergency calls.”

It is important to distinguish between a resolution and an ordinance. While an ordinance is voted on to actually amend the law, resolutions are essentially merely conversation starters, as those in Brown’s office stated.

You can read the resolution in full here.

APD-Fulton District Attorney Partnership Ordinance

The ordinance that will be introduced to City Council on Mon., July 13, addresses the fact that, according to a study produced by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, “close to a thousand police shootings of civilians occur each year in the United States and the victims are disproportionately young men of color, but criminal charges rarely result from those fatalities.” 

The ordinance states that “there must be an improved process to hold officers accountable who, despite the reforms, may be involved in incidents that may be deemed criminal.” It identifies that reform proposals in regards to incident reporting, control of investigations, sharing of information, cooperation with investigation, body and dash cams, and reports and review are all crucial in a time when there is an extreme lack of confidence and trust in regards to law enforcement. The legislation moves to ordain four sections which are intended to establish and strengthen a process between the District Attorney’s office and the APD to “hold officers accountable for criminal activity while providing a clear process for police officers to provide evidence and information which may support their innocence.”

Section One states that the APD is to “provide information and cooperate with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office as necessary to facilitate, improve the efficiency and enhance the transparency of investigations involving officer involved shootings, incidents of serious bodily injury, and accusations of sexual misconduct. Section Two proposes the six reforms that should be adopted in regards to the areas listed above. Section Three states that the “Fulton County District Attorney consider creating an independent investigative body in partnership with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and the DeKalb County District Attorney to mandate that police report all officer involved shootings, incidents of serious bodily injury and accusations of sexual misconduct and that the independent body will control the investigation and collect all evidence related to the investigations.” Lastly, Section Four states that “all ordinances or parts of ordinance in conflict with the terms of this ordinance are hereby repealed.”

This ordinance, again, appears to be one step of many that need to be taken in the right direction; while we could argue that these ordinances are long overdue and should have been set in motion a long time ago, we are where we are. 

You can read the ordinance legislation in full here.

Atlanta residents can call the public comment line ahead of the July 13 city council meeting at 404-330-6022 (on Sun., July 12 between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., according to Councilmember Brown’s office) to express their thoughts of both the resolution and the ordinance.

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