Unarmed “para-police” who respond to non-emergency calls are one of the possible reforms that Atlanta may consider in the wake of protests over racism and police brutality, City Council President Felicia Moore told the Buckhead Business Association June 11.

Speaking in a virtual meeting, Moore addressed the calls from some protesters to “defund the police” and lessons from the looting and arson that hit Buckhead the night of May 29-30 as a series of massive, largely peaceful protests began Downtown spawned by the police-involved killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and the killings of many other black people elsewhere, including Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore. (Special)

The idea of defunding police departments has been taken up by the city council of Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, with councilmembers saying they intend to disband the current force and reinvent a public safety system focused on social services. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey opposes the idea while calling for police reforms.

“I think it’s a distraction for us from getting to what we need to get to,” Moore said of the “defund the police” concept, though she said its “non-extreme” version is worth considering.

Moore noted that with lower revenues from the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, the city already would be looking for “efficiencies” in the public safety budget, “and now we’re going to have to balance [priorities with] people’s perceptions of police officers.” She noted that the biggest part of the Atlanta Police Department budget is personnel costs.

“Just last year, the mantra was we didn’t have enough police,” she said, and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms boosted salaries to attract and retain officers. “If we quote-unquote defund the police,” that means “cutting officers,” Moore said. “And frankly, if we institute reforms… all of those things cost money.”

Those reforms could include different methods of policing, she said. Rick Hamilton, a local real estate agent, told Moore that he doesn’t want to see APD funding decreased, but he does want to know alternatives for police responses to situations “that don’t need a person with a gun to show up.”

“I do think there could be a para-police” to handle non-criminal or non-dangerous calls, Moore said. “I think that needs to be part of the conversation.”

The suburban cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs have a version of that model, with trained citizens serving police departments for such purposes as directing traffic, responding to minor complaints and writing tickets for handicapped parking space violations.

Bottoms said in a June 10 conference call with the City Council that her administration was already shifting much police and corrections funding to social services.

Speaking broadly of reform models, Moore praised the report from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was formed by then President Barack Obama in the wake of the 2014 protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Moore called it an “excellent document” with a framework for ensuring that “police are working with and for the community and not against them.”

A series of police reforms followed the Ferguson incident, including the wearing of body cameras by APD. However, Moore did not discuss why similar killings and incidents have followed despite such reforms, including during the recent Atlanta protests, where APD officers arrested a working journalist and four officers were fired on excessive-force grounds after a violent Taser arrest of two college students.

Hamilton noted that police seemed to be caught “a little flat-footed” by the looting in Buckhead, which continued for hours. He asked whether the city learned any lessons that can be used to prepare for such spin-offs of other peaceful protests elsewhere.

Moore indicated she believed APD should have been better prepared after a social media call the previous day for looting of some of the places that ended up being hit. APD said it boosted patrols in the area that day. Moore called the social media looting suggestion a “terroristic threat” that may have inspired the looters. “It was an expensive lesson and an unfortunate lesson,” she said.

Garth Peters of the Buckhead Coalition praised spontaneous cleanup efforts by residents following the looting and vandalism. Moore said similar volunteerism happened Downtown. “It was heartwarming to see the citizens of Atlanta step up and say, ‘You know, you’re not going to trash our city and we’re going to be the ones to be out there and clean up,’” said Moore.

There was no discussion of the recent peaceful protests in Buckhead or the factors, including race and income-inequality issues, that have drawn them there both during the 2016 Black Lives Matter movement and today.

Other issues

Moore addressed some other issues of city interest. She noted that the pandemic is still a public health threat and has effects on the city budget that are the number one priority for the council. She said the city is still working on a phased reopening of facilities and has found efficiencies in teleworking.

“I do want to caution everybody on COVID-19,” Moore said, joining the concern expressed by Bottoms and others that there could be a spike in cases after “massive protests that threw all social distancing out the window.”

More was asked about the chaotic June 9 primary and special election, where new voting machines, pandemic precautions and other problems led to some long waits and delayed results. While the city has no role in the elections, she said that she and other elected officials heard from unhappy constituents.

“It was an embarrassment, not only here in the state, but across the country,” said Moore. “The state of Georgia was raised up in a bad way.”

One attendee asked Moore about the status of Opportunity Zones in the city, where tax benefits are available for investments in redevelopment in “economically distressed areas.” Moore said she supports the use of Opportunity Zones as a tool if they truly create opportunity and not just “gentrification.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.