Amid so much sorrow in response to police violence nationwide, Atlanta is embarking upon an exciting initiative to rethink how police engage with communities. Building on models that have been successful in Seattle and elsewhere, Atlanta is in the midst of designing its own pre-arrest diversion program.
The central idea is that, in instances of petty crimes such as low-level drug use or street-level sex work, the police would have alternatives to arrest and imprisonment—measures that by now they know fully well don’t really work in reducing such crimes. Instead, the police would be able to divert people to services such as drug treatment programs, housing assistance, and mental health care. We know from other cities’ experience that this approach works. It’s both cost-effective and humane.
It’s exciting that Atlanta is getting on board with these smart solutions. Many important Atlanta leaders have signed on to the pre-arrest diversion initiative, including Mayor Kasim Reed, Councilmember Kwanza Hall, and Fulton Court Superior Chief Judge Gail Tusan, among many more. Police Chief George Turner has declared his support as well. However, Turner has been conspicuously absent from the preliminary planning so far. Now is a great time for that to change.
The first meeting of the Design Team that will come up with the plan to implement pre-arrest diversion is on Wednesday, July 13. The Design Team has so much important work to do this year, including deciding who is eligible to participate in pre-arrest diversion and where the program should be piloted in Atlanta. The first meeting will be key to setting the Design Team culture, and building trusting working relationships between Design Team members. Police Chief George Turner needs to be there. That’s because the culture of an organization is set from the top. If we are going to be successful in changing the mindset of the police to embrace alternatives to arrest and incarceration, it needs to be a consensus vision from top to bottom. That means we need the Chief.
All over the country, people are wondering what can be done to prevent deadly police encounters that start over petty crimes—selling untaxed cigarettes or CDs, jaywalking. This is an urgent question, and it only touches the tip of the iceberg of the harm that can be done by excessive police attention to “nuisance crime.” This week in Atlanta, protesters sat in at the Governor’s mansion to grieve and demand change. Police Chief George Turner agreed to meet with activists again on Monday.
If he attends Wednesday’s meeting, Chief Turner can have something more concrete to offer activists than just empty words. Pre-arrest diversion is an innovative way for the police and communities to work together toward proactive solutions. We hope to see Chief Turner at the Pre-Arrest Diversion Design Team meeting on Wednesday, a key moment in building a better Atlanta.
Kevin Jefferson is a PhD student in public health at Emory University. He studies public safety and poverty.