When Acting Police Chief George Turner announced the Atlanta Police Department’s interim reorganization last week, two zone commander assignments stood out: Maj. Renee Propes would be leaving Zone 6 for the airport precinct, and Maj. Khirus Williams would be staying in Zone 5.
It’s easy to see why the airport needs Propes. Airports are of key importance to national security. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is the busiest airport in the world. Propes is the kind of sharp, motivated officer the feds will love working with. The airport is also a sore spot for Atlanta politicians, with a history of graft and patronage. Propes is just the morally sound straight-shooter to help clean up the airport’s image.
Williams has such a fan following in Zone 5 that to move him would cause a riot.
But there is more to this tale of two majors. Whether a bid by Zone 6 residents to reverse Propes’ transfer is successful or not, this is a story Atlantans need to understand if they are to make crime such a rarity that Atlanta becomes Mayor Kasim Reed’s oft-referenced “shining city on a hill.” Making that happen hinges on residents’ commitment to their neighborhoods and the police department’s commitment to the residents.
Maj. Propes is an engaging, concerned, no-nonsense, smart, and notoriously hard-working officer who has for the past five years been in charge of troubled and tricky Zone 6 on Atlanta's eastside. It is troubled because it is allegedly home to more gangs than any other part of the city and because it was redrawn into a sprawling complexity of affluent enclaves and pockets of grinding poverty. It is tricky because it has one of the worst problems that any area can have: a substantial number of people who move in with the acknowledged goal of quickly fixing up a house, selling it at a profit, and moving on.
I earned the ire of some of those individuals in Zone 6 last year. Already panicked by the plummeting real estate market, they didn’t want me telling the rest of the city about crime in their neighborhood. They wanted me to focus on “all the good things” instead. But real public safety requires real public discussion of problems, and while there were plenty of Zone 6 residents who were willing to go public, they were up against the political weight of the “perceptionists”—those who didn’t care about the reality of crime so long as they could unload their houses.
Those who do care are heartbroken to see Propes go. In her short tenure, Propes has reached out tirelessly to the area’s residents and resourcefully devoted more cops out of her tiny cache of officers to crime hot spots. She was over-stretched and under-resourced like all APD majors, but she made the best of a bad situation. With her transfer out of the zone, some residents feel betrayed by a new police administration that has said community policing will be its guiding light.
The contrast with Midtown, which forms the spine of Zone 5, is glaring.
Beginning in summer 2008, the residents of Midtown began ringing my phone off the hook about crime. They weren’t ashamed of the problem and they weren’t concerned about what people would think,. They wanted to make a lot of noise because they felt their zone commander, Maj. Khirus Williams, needed more support from the department to fix the problem.
Phrases like “He is amazing,” and “That guy works his ass off,” were common.
Midtowners invited me to their homes and showed me where burglars had broken in or where friends had been robbed as they walked home from work or dinner. And they praised Williams for his quick response and his latest initiatives for cracking down.
A repeated burglary victim in her 60s told me: “If they don’t make Khirus chief, they’d better just leave him right the hell where he is. We’ll fight you about Khirus.”
Propes was no less dedicated. The difference was that Williams had residents who intended to stick around for a long time. They felt they had arrived at their residential destination. They had no qualms about yelling about the crime problem and supporting their major in the fight against it. Propes, on the other hand, had many residents—certainly not all—who felt their homes in Zone 6 were more like stops along the way to somewhere else. They wanted to keep their concerns about crime private so as not to scare off potential buyers.
There are those residents of Zone 6 who have fought valiantly for their neighborhoods, who have dug in and held on despite outrageous crimes. When Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr. said at a community meeting there last week that residents shouldn’t make demands about police staffing, but should instead dialogue with the cops, he meant well, but he missed the point. The residents have every right to make demands. Their taxes pay the cops and the City Council. More importantly, residents who care enough to show up at a neighborhood meeting are those who intend to stick around.
If the APD fails to listen to them and nurture their sense of civic involvement, all of Mayor Reed’s best laid plans to fight crime will fail. It is impossible for the police to do it alone. Cops and residents need each other, and having a police chief who listens to residents’ plea that a beloved major remain at her post is a very basic step toward realizing the mayor’s dream of Atlanta being the shining city on a hill. SP