The Atlanta Police Foundation is balancing priorities of reducing youth crime while trying to ease the Atlanta Police Department’s staffing shortage, Dave Wilkinson, the group’s president and CEO, said at the Sept. 10 Rotary Club of Sandy Springs meeting. Wilkinson also said he supports the city’s new public safety commissioner position.

The foundation supports the Atlanta Police Department through a public-private partnership. Its work has included establishing a main center that integrates most of the city’s surveillance cameras, opening a youth center and developing recruitment programs.

Atlanta Police Foundation President and CEO Dave Wilkinson speaks at the Sept. 10 Rotary Club of Sandy Springs meeting. (Evelyn Andrews)

Wilkinson, who has been leading the foundation since 2005, spent the previous 22 years as a Secret Service agent, working closely with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, an experience he discussed for most of his talk at the meeting.

He said during the talk and in a brief interview after that many of the foundation’s programs are centered on reducing the staffing shortage, including providing housing, relocation bonuses and training scholarships to officers, he said.

“All of these things are developed around stemming attrition,” Wilkinson said. “That’s what’s killing this department right now.”

The foundation released a report in July that confirmed Atlanta police officers are paid less than many in surrounding or similar cities.

Although the Atlanta City Council passed a budget amendment in June that gave sworn officers a 3.1 percent pay raise, the city still falls behind many cities, including the nearby Sandy Springs and Tampa, Fla., according to the report.

The staff shortage has led APD’s Zone 2, which covers Buckhead, to reduce its response to shoplifting calls.

New public safety commissioner

Wilkinson said he believes the recently announced decision to bring former Atlanta Police Chief George Turner back to serve as the newly created public safety commissioner was a “wonderful idea.”

Turner will be able to do long-range and strategic planning to allow the department to focus on day-to-day tasks, Wilkinson said.

“He’ll do the visionary planning for the department,” he said. “As you can imagine, a police chief is too busy day to day to really focus on strategic planning or visioning. They’re too busy putting out of the fires.”

Turner served as the police chief for seven years during a 36-year long career as an officer, according to a press release. He will now oversee the police department, the Atlanta City Department of Corrections, the Office of Emergency Preparedness and the Atlanta Fire Rescue Department, the release said.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in the release that Turner will help the city prepare for upcoming major events, including the Super Bowl, which will be held in February 2019 at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium downtown.

After retiring from the police department in 2016, Turner took a position as the vice president of safety, security and parking with the Atlanta Hawks, which will cover Turner’s salary as the commissioner for at least a year, the release said.

“Turner’s priority will be to address the recent spike in property crime, much of which, he says, is driven by young people,” the press release said.

“We will get to work right away to determine the causes behind this increase in crime and then reach out to our counterparts in the juvenile justice system to create an effective strategy to reduce those numbers,” Turner said in the release.

Wilkinson said the foundation also is prioritizing reducing youth crime, chiefly through it’s “At-Promise Youth Center,” which opened in the English Avenue neighborhood in Atlanta’s west side in 2017.

The center provides youth involved in crime with education, including vocational classes, recreation and health and social services, according to the website.

Judge sentencing

Wilkinson said the foundation is pushing for a change in how judges use discretion during sentencing of convicted criminals.

“Judge sentencing must be more transparent,” he said.

A July murder during an armed robbery outside the Capital City country club on the Brookhaven/Buckhead border has caused outrage for a judge’s sentencing of one of the suspects. Myrick was previously convicted of armed robbery at age 14 and could have still been in state prison under a plea deal, but a Fulton Superior Court judge chose to have him serve over two years in juvenile detention, followed by probation supervised by a private organization.

Although Wilkinson said the recent case is a good example, the group has been working on changing the sentencing process for years, he said. There are “hundreds of examples,” he said.

He said many murders are committed by people with a long list of previous convictions or arrests, leaving people to ask “why they are still are on the street” and able to commit murder, Wilkinson said.

“If the judicial system is doing what it’s intended to do, their loved one would still be alive,” he said.