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Five tips for Atlanta's next police chief

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By the time you read this story, Atlanta may have a new, permanent police chief.

On May 25, Mayor Kasim Reed announced he'd narrowed a nationwide (wo)manhunt down to three finalists; Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport TSA chief and former Rochester, N.Y., police Chief Dr. Cedric Alexander; Louisville, Ky.'s current Chief Robert White; and Atlanta's former Deputy Chief George Turner, who's been running the department since former Chief Richard Pennington departed at the end of Mayor Shirley Franklin's term.

On Thursday, Reed brought his finalists to the Atlanta Civic Center for an unprecedented and, frankly, odd town hall-style meeting. Presented as if they were politicians debating before an election, the candidates sat at a table on stage to answer questions from reporters and the audience. Reed announced his intention to reveal his selection within a few days, which suggests the mayor was watching to see how the candidates interact with the public before making his choice.

How'd they do? As well as can be expected from a format that solicits canned, vague answers.

All three men are clearly very smart. All three vowed to work hard and reduce crime. We'd expect no less. All three noted that crime is a symptom of broader socioeconomic issues that policing alone cannot address. Duh. And all three vowed to be good listeners.

That last one was especially important. Because if these men are indeed good listeners, they probably picked up from the Q&A and any conversations they may have had with Joe and Josephine Public, that Atlantans have several long-standing, specific grievances with their police force — grievances that many believe were given short shrift by Pennington and Franklin.

But we'll make things easy for whoever the next chief turns out to (already?) be:

Tip 1: Be the warm and fuzzy anti-Pennington.

What does Kirkwood resident Lori Sheridan Federico want from a new Atlanta police chief? "An improvement over the last one."

Like many in the city, Federico was frustrated by Pennington's blasé attitude and insistence that fear of crime wasn't driven by actual crime, but by a perception of crime spread by residents nagging to their friends by e-mail and community message boards. "I'm tired of hearing, 'it's not that bad,'" Federico says. "I'd like more accountability instead of denial something is wrong with the city."

Tip 2: Figure out a way improve response times.

Slow response to 911 calls, which acting Chief Turner acknowledged during the town hall meeting as a big problem, isn't entirely a chief's doing. A police chief can't make the city council give him more money to hire cops. But, as the candidates acknowledged, improved management of existing resources could at least reduce the problem. "It shouldn't take an hour for someone to come to your house if there's a break-in," says Federico — and probably most folks you might ask.

Tip 3: If you're out of town when a crisis happens, come back.

No, you can't predict when your warrant-forging drug squad is going to gun down an innocent 92-year-old woman in her own living room, then plant drugs in her house to make it look like she had it coming. Nor can you guess when a freak tornado's gonna cut a path across several downtown neighborhoods. But, unlike Pennington, you might want to cut your trip short, return to Atlanta and at least pretend you're in charge.

"When you are a public servant getting paid with the people's money, you get your sweet ass on a plane and come back. Pronto," says potty-mouthed musician Jim Stacy.

And, whatever you do, don't claim — as Pennington did after Kathryn Johnston's shooting — that you couldn't get a flight back from New York. For you two out-of-town chief finalists, you know that big slab of concrete along the southern edge of I-285? That's the world's busiest airport, with nearly 60 nonstop flights daily between New York and Atlanta.

Tip 4: Ask the APD to be a little nicer.

Complaints about APD members trash-talking city residents made big news after last year's raid of the gay nightclub Atlanta Eagle. But Trevor Bethell, a 17-year-old black kid who lives in the Old Fourth Ward, complains that police driving by in cars have criticized the way he wears his hat and threatened to take him to jail for his sagging pants.

"I've never done nothing wrong in my life. Little things like that shouldn't happen," Bethell says.

Tip 5: Negotiate a fair truce with the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.

If the number of questions and comments about it is an indication, APD's oppositional relationship with the Atlanta Citizen Review Board is unacceptable to city residents. It's ironic that a police force that relies on outspoken witnesses and sworn testimony to solve crimes is filled with people who are reluctant to discuss the APD's own bad practices. Even if his popularity takes a beating, the new chief needs to convince the rank and file that openness, honesty and respect will help the force build a better relationship with the public.

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