Candidates praise but won’t commit to keeping Atlanta’s gay top cop

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Atlanta's mayoral candidates praised police Chief Erika Shields – the first-ever openly lesbian head of the Atlanta Police Department – but only two committed to keeping her in place if they are elected this fall.

The eight candidates – Peter Aman, Keisha Lance Bottoms, John Eaves, Vincent Fort, Kwanza Hall, Ceasar Mitchell, Mary Norwood and Cathy Woolard – offered kind words on Shields' tenure with Atlanta police during a recent forum hosted by the Atlanta Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. But when moderator Maria Saporta noted that incoming mayors tend to change department heads and asked if the candidates would keep Shields as chief, only Bottoms and Hall said yes.

Mayor Kasim Reed named Shields chief in December to replace a retiring George Turner. She later came out in an interview with Atlanta magazine, becoming the city's first openly gay police chief.

Here is what the candidates said when asked if they would keep Shields as chief:

Cathy Woolard, former Atlanta City Council president

“I think Erika Shields is an excellent choice. I think she seems to be off to a great start. But I don’t make promises that anybody gets to keep a job six months before I get the position. So she’ll get full consideration, I’ll be watching very closely how she manages the department between here and the beginning of my term as mayor.”

Mary Norwood, City Council member

“I feel very much similar to what Cathy [Woolard] has said. I like her very much. I worked with Erika Shields as she has been one of the primary contacts for City Council. So when we were dealing with body cameras I got inside information about what the department was doing, and how all that needed to work to make sure that it worked appropriately so that the police had the equipment that they needed. So, I’ve worked with her a long time, I like her very much. I love the fact that she felt comfortable in our town coming out. I think that was just such a grand thing for Atlanta, that we would have a police chief who would say ‘I am a lesbian.’ That was fabulous. I will be talking with the men and women of the force, I am very committed to making sure that the leadership we have is the very best we can have, but I am very impressed with her so far.”

Ceasar Mitchell, City Council president

“Quite simply she’ll get full consideration from me. And I say that because there is a term called ‘real police,’ and Erika is real police. And I say that because my father was an Atlanta police officer, and there is nothing more important than being truthful with citizens in the community as you are working with them to keep neighborhoods safe. And I listen to Erika very closely in her time thus far as police chief and she’s spoken the truth about the troubles that we are facing as it relates to crime. Particularly as it’s facing young people and even the African American community, and that strikes a chord with me as a son of a police officer and someone who lives in [cut off by moderator].”

Kwanza Hall, City Council member

“She is absolutely the change that I’ve been expecting. We were working before she was chief on the pre-arrest diversion program, and several other initiatives that focus on taking a different approach and philosophy to policing. And I think this is a marked change in our country. And she will lead us into a new direction, so I am 100 percent in support of keeping her. And the initiatives we have already rolled out in the past around criminal justice reform we can continue to do and keep our city safe at the same time.”

Vincent Fort, state senator

“I think it would be premature to make a statement about any commissioner or police chief in keeping them on. I wouldn’t make that statement; she’ll be given full consideration. I think anyone that makes that kind of declaration before January 1, 2018 is probably being presumptuous.”

John Eaves, Fulton County commission chair

“I’ve met her, I think she’s doing a good job, particularly in the area of community policing. But like the other folks up here, I do think it’s important to review and to examine all of the current commissioners, heads of departments. I have an idea bringing in a dream team, of folks who are not only incredibly competent in their respective fields but is also reflective of the wonderful diversity of the City of Atlanta. So I am going to be open to making sure that there’s diverse sexual orientation diversity, in terms of other department heads, not just the police department.”

Keisha Lance Bottoms, City Council member

“I adore Chief Shields, not that anyone asked me. But I did think that she was an excellent pick as our police chief, I will look at all of our department heads but certainly make my preference known. But I do think each department head should be appropriately vetted at the appropriate time, but Chief Shields would be my choice.”

Peter Aman, former chief operating officer

“In 2010, when I was chief operating officer, I had the good fortune to work with Mayor Reed to interview all of the candidates for all of the cabinet positions, Chief Turner among them. And I think Chief Turner’s selection was excellent. I then had the opportunity to work with Chief Turner as he selected and rotated and managed the command staff. And so through that time got to know Chief Shields very, very well. And I will tell you that not only does Chief Shields embody community policing, which is absolutely critical, but she embodies compassionate policing. And so whether it’s her statements around marijuana and de-prioritization, or whether it’s her statements around treating people with respect throughout the city, she gets it. And so I am in tremendous support and respect of Chief Shields. Like others on this stage I do, however, think that we should go through a process of interviewing people for all cabinet positions and I don’t believe in promising jobs in advance. But I do believe that she is a highly capable individual, and I do also believe that in a number of department we need to look internally.”


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