The Failure of Police Reform

Written by
Micah Herskind and Tiffany Roberts
Feb. 14, 2022

Atlanta’s city government spent decades on half-hearted measures meant to address police violence.

Two weeks after uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd left Atlanta littered with ashes, protesters flooded the city’s streets once more. The police had killed again, and this time the victim was an Atlantan: 27-year-old father and music lover Rayshard Brooks, shot in the back twice by Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe. The Wendy’s where Rolfe killed Brooks the day before went up in flames, lighting up the night as protesters chanted and mourned, decrying a system that disproportionately takes the lives of Black people as a matter of course.

“You are disgracing our city,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had declared when the protests broke out two weeks earlier. Bottoms’s admonishment was celebrated by pundits and politicians, winning her a national profile. “If you care about this city, then go home,” she urged.

But protesters filled the streets precisely because they cared so deeply. Six years after the first round of Black Lives Matter uprisings, it felt to many that the system had not fundamentally shifted. The 2020 protests popularized the demand to defund the police and invest instead in community-based safety and well-being — a demand that many organizers in Atlanta had been working to make reality for the previous two decades.

Despite those efforts, the city’s leadership responded to the 2020 uprisings with a mix of co-option, half-measures, and brutal police repression — a pattern the city has long practiced. Indeed, the reaction to Rayshard Brooks’s killing was in some ways predictable — the result of decades of sweeping police violence under the rug and disregarding organizers’ demands.

In 2006, 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnston was murdered by Atlanta Police Department officers in her home after officers entered under a “no knock” warrant, the same type of warrant police had when they killed Breonna Taylor 14 years later. In response, civil-rights leaders, including Joseph E. Lowery, a onetime confidant of Martin Luther King Jr., led the charge to revive civilian oversight of police, in the hopes of exposing the pervasive violence that the department had historically kept quiet. At the same time, community members gathered at a local church to demand consequences for the officers and broader reforms.

The reaction to Rayshard Brooks’s killing was the result of decades of sweeping police violence under the rug.

Following the outcry, the city established the Atlanta Citizen Review Board in 2007. Many hoped this would begin a process of accountability, but two years later, the ACRB still had little authority to address police misconduct. It could not, for instance, force officers to testify or otherwise cooperate with investigations. City leadership had purported to concede a demand but refused to cede any power.

By the time Johnston’s killers were convicted, the high-profile murder of a local bartender had fueled a narrative of rising crime and calls to increase policing. In response, a group of public defenders, local organizers, service providers, and those living in police-saturated neighborhoods formed Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety. (Tiffany Roberts, who co-wrote this story, is a co-founder.) BLOCS advocates knew that the criminal convictions of officers would not change the devastation that tough-on-crime tactics continued to have on their communities, and they began working for more substantive accountability.

In 2010, BLOCS won more power for the ACRB, and the next year, the organization pushed the city to dismantle the APD’s paramilitary Red Dog Unit, the source of frequent complaints of excessive force. The year before, the unit had raided the Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar in midtown Atlanta, and assaulted patrons. Red Dog had also been accused of performing unconstitutional public strip searches of predominantly Black men. Community members cheered at the news of Red Dog’s dissolution, but the city quickly replaced the unit with APEX — a brand-new militarized APD squad that would come to perform many of the same functions as its predecessor, conducting raids in what it called “high crime” areas.

In 2014, when Officer Darren Wilson murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson Atlanta protested with the rest of the nation. A year later, Atlanta’s official Black Lives Matter chapter was founded. By the time hundreds of protesters blocked an Atlanta interstate in 2016 — leading then-Mayor Reed to ahistorically opine that “Dr. King would never take a freeway” — the city’s response to demonstrations and policy advocacy had become increasingly hostile, with officials eagerly deploying law enforcement to combat the growing movement.

Despite opposition, organizers notched crucial wins, including the creation of what is now called the Policing Alternatives & Diversion Initiative, which would reduce police contact with those criminalized for poverty; significant reforms to the city’s cash-bail system; the (still unfulfilled) promise to close the city jail; and the dissolution of federal contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At the same time, police murders in Atlanta continued apace, taking the lives of Alexia Christian in 2015, Deravis Caine Rogers in 2016, Deaundre Phillips in 2017, and organizer Oscar Cain Jr. in 2019. And efforts by regressive councilmembers, municipal judges, and APD allies to roll back key reforms began almost as soon as they were passed.

In 2020, the city’s response to the uprisings was marked by brutal police repression, even as the governor of Georgia deployed the National Guard. Police were deployed to quash protests, often trapping protesters in Atlanta’s famous Centennial Olympic Park before shipping them off to the closest jail. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, and sheer force, police injured and arrested protesters throughout the summer. During just two weeks of demonstrations, police arrested roughly 600 people, cycling hundreds through already overcrowded jails in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

The Bottoms administration’s response to Brooks’s death — a mix of superficial proposals and police repression — was more evidence that the old ways were not working. After convening an advisory council to issue emergency recommendations on use-of-force policies for the Atlanta police, the mayor cherry-picked just under half of the suggestions, generally electing to investigate or study rather than substantively address the issues that led to Brooks’s death. Even as the call to defund the police reached the mainstream, Bottoms’s administration insisted instead on the need for additional training and protocols. But as protesters in the streets made clear, these reforms as envisioned and practiced by the city had failed to stem the violence.

Rolfe, Brooks’s killer, was himself evidence of tepid reform’s inability to resolve the crisis. Indeed, on paper, he is the “ideal” modern, reformed officer. He had reportedly undergone 2,000 hours of training, including sessions on de-escalation tactics, cultural-awareness training, and instruction on use of deadly force. None of this preparation stopped him from killing Rayshard Brooks.

Most recently, in 2021, Mayor Bottoms’s administration worked closely with the Atlanta Police Foundation — one of policing’s fiercest defenders in Atlanta — to create plans for a police training facility, named “Cop City” by organizers who rose up to fight it. If built, Cop City would require the partial destruction of critical green space in Atlanta and far outstrip the training facilities of the much larger L.A. and New York police departments. As one of Bottoms’s last major projects before leaving office, Cop City would expand the footprint of policing in Atlanta just one year after mass protests calling to defund the police.

Even still, hope remains. Organizers continue to build support for alternatives to policing, pick up electoral wins, practice mutual aid, and form creative coalitions to meet the moment, while ongoing protests send a clear message: As long as political leadership relies on policing to resist, sidestep, and quash demands for transformation, police will continue to kill, and cities will continue to burn.