Atlanta’s new police chief pledges more work on LGBT issues

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Mayor Kasim Reed tapped a 20-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department to become its next chief, pledging that he and the agency's new leader will continue working closely with the city's LGBT residents.

Deputy Chief Erika Shields, who joined Atlanta police in 1995, will replace Chief George Turner, who announced that he's retiring later this month after 35 years with the agency, Reed said during a City Hall press conference on Thursday. 

Reed named Turner acting police chief just days into his new administration in January 2010 and the pair inherited a fractured relationship with the LGBT community in the wake of the police raid of the Eagle. The raid happened before Reed took office.

But Turner, named the city's top cop in July 2010, and Reed worked to repair the damage done by the bar raid. A second LGBT liaison was hired, Turner improved how the liaisons were involved in cases with LGBT victims, and the chief eventually fired six officers and disciplined nine others involved in the Eagle raid.

Shields had a front row seat to the aftermath of the raid as she served as Turner's chief of staff. In 2011, Turner tasked Shields with cleaning up the mess the raid left behind. That included compliance with the terms of a federal lawsuit filed over the raid, which the city and the police department have sometimes struggled with.

Shields said Thursday she's proud of the progress that Atlanta police have made since the raid in 2009.

“I think we have made enormous inroads and the first step in the process is that the department as a whole acknowledging that we had come up short and that we were to blame. And that process took awhile,” Shields said. 

“We are in a completely different space in so far as the LGBT community is concerned. We are actually asked to train abroad on bias crimes on a regular basis by the State Department. Much of our success is attributed to the fact that this office here is so professional and there is so much talent that we can rely on,” she added, referring to the mayor's office where her promotion was announced. 

Turner said the agency is committed to reflecting the diversity of the city, an effort that he said started when Atlanta police hired its first black officer in 1948 – years ahead of other law enforcement agencies.

“Our diversity is what makes us strong,” Turner said. “If you look at the demographics of our department, it is really close to what the demographics of the city are like.”

“If we chose to ask the question of our folks' sexual preference, I think we would be close in that category as well. And that's not done by mistake, that's done by intention,” Turner said. 

A large contingent of LGBT officers marches in the Atlanta Pride parade each October. Turner took part just months after being promoted in 2010. Shields has participated in the Pride parade several times in recent years. In July, Shields took part in a public forum with LGBT activists and leaders hosted by U.S. Attorney John Horn.

“We started in a very tough place dating back to the Eagle in 2009 before we took office. We made some horrible decisions and mistakes there but we began to embrace those decisions and try to get it right, created relationships with the LGBT community and began to work in that space,” Turner said. 

“We are changing [LGBT] perception around the Atlanta Police Department and our engagement. It's continuing work. It's not something that's complete. I'm confident that Chief Shields will continue the work that we've done and develop additional partnerships with that community as well as all communities,” Turner added.

In 2010, Turner promoted Major Renee Propes to deputy chief, making her the highest-ranking publicly gay commander at the agency. Propes retired in 2014. In 2015, Turner promoted Darin Schierbaum and Henrietta Smith, both gay, to majors and dispatched Schierbaum to the agency's training academy. That's where he was tasked with cleaning up a controversy over homophobic and anti-trans training materials used to train new police recruits.

Shields faces challenges over LGBT issues, including how the agency treats transgender people and its compliance with reforms spelled out in the city's settlement of the Eagle raid lawsuit. There's also the fate of the nine-member LGBT advisory board, which Turner created in 2010. The panel hasn't met since 2012.


'The LGBT community is a part of us'


Reed credited Turner and his command staff at the police department with improving relations with LGBT residents and helping the city earn perfect scores on HRC's Municipal Equality Index.

“Our administration's view of the LGBT community is that it's a part of us. It is a part of the body,” Reed said. 

“We decided it's not really enough to treat anyone as other and so from my office to the leadership of the police department, that is exactly where we are going to stay,” Reed added.

Reed said the improved relationship between the city, police and LGBT residents was seen in June when the mayor convened a meeting with nearly three-dozen LGBT leaders and business owners to discuss public safety issues in the wake of the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.

“One of the best days we had, unfortunately brought on by the tragedy of the Pulse shooting, was the comfort that leaders of the LGBTQ community had in coming into City Hall and sitting around and having a conversation for two hours, sharing some of the most intimate feelings that you could share. I thought that was a huge moment in the life of the city and I think that we got to that space because of the leadership of Chief Turner and his command team,” Reed said.

“It was Chief Turner and Deputy Chief Erika Shields by my side helping to address the anxiety that was genuinely felt within the LGBT community,” the mayor said.


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