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Police Face New Challenges Amid Growing Terror Threat

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the last two weeks, a total of eight officers have been killed in attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Officials in both cities say the officers were intentionally targeted. In response, police departments across the country are changing their procedures. Atlanta, for instance, has made several changes, starting with how 911 calls are screened. If an officer feels uneasy about a call, the department provides more support. Here's how chief of police George Turner explains it.

CHIEF GEORGE TURNER: When you have those kind of calls, that information that you're receiving, you have to make sure that you get that out on the airway, and make sure that the supervisor acknowledges the calls, and that we are responding to those scenes with multiple units as opposed to just a single vehicle prior to going into the location where shots are being recorded.

CORNISH: Chief Turner is also sending officers out on patrols in pairs, something other big cities are also doing. But he says doubling up has a down side.

TURNER: As opposed to having 20 cars out patrolling the neighborhood, now you have 10 cars patrolling. And so we can't be in as many places as we would have normally been if we had 20 cars out patrolling in a certain district. It's really challenging for us and other departments around the country who have chosen to go to two-man cars who have not deployed in that fashion in the past. And so our citizens have to understand we cannot have the same response time when we reduce the number of cars that are responding to emergency situations.

CORNISH: The public protests over the last few years and in the recent times with the Black Lives Matter movement have also called attention to another issue, militarized police tactics when it comes to crowd control. But after the officers were killed in Baton Rouge, we heard the police chief there, Carl Dabadie, say this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHIEF CARL DABADIE: This is why - because we are up against a force that is not playing by the rules. They haven't played by the rules. They didn't play by the rules in Dallas, and they didn't play by the rules here. This is why - we don't ever want to use it, but we have to have the ability to use it when we needed it, and we needed it here.

CORNISH: Chief Turner, what's your response to this? You know, you have them in Baton Rouge - the chief went on to say, our militarized tactics, as they're being called, saved lives here. What's your take on this issue?

TURNER: Well, I think you have to look at that holistically. I think you just played a snippet of what the police chief said. So for instance, in Atlanta we've had - out of the last 10 days, we've had protests on our streets probably six of those days. Now, the fact is we have the obligation to protect property and lives of citizens and visitors to our city, no different than any city in America. Think about what happened in Paris on November the 13th.

It really changed the way we police our cities forever, a multiple-site attack on cities - that first responders will and always be the first one on the ground to try to mitigate those issues. If we don't have the proper equipment to push back on attacks on our homeland then we cannot have a chance to protect the citizens that we've been sworn to protect and serve.

CORNISH: When I spoke to you last year, we spoke about the idea of a Ferguson effect, that the additional scrutiny of police officers would somehow have a chilling effect on policing. You said you weren't seeing much of that with your officers. How are you feeling now?

TURNER: Well, you know, we're doing everything we can to have dialogue with our officers. First, we have a peer counseling program that we implemented inside of our department. And then we have a chaplaincy program that we've allowed those chaplains - those peer counselors - to go out and talk to our officers at our roll calls. In the city of Atlanta, we have psychological services and counselors that have been made available to our officers that really just make sure that they're in a good place to be able to do this work. How do you continue this work and be prepared, both mentally and physically, to do it without someone doing some level of checking on them to make sure that that officer's prepared?

CORNISH: So you've put some very serious initiatives in place, but how are officers doing? I mean, what's morale been like?

TURNER: Well, I think it's still been very positive. I think that there are isolated cases that you'll see officers that are pulled back. But in the challenges that we've had over the last five - six days of protests in our city, officers have worked longer hours and they've worked through the burning heat of the South here. And they've performed professionally. I still believe, no matter who you talk to, that policing is the most noble profession that one could choose. We are challenged today more than ever before to be able to recruit to our ranks simply because of the rhetoric, I think, and a lot of the scrutiny that are going through our nation. And we need young people that have a desire to make a difference to join our police departments. In a conversation with Chief Brown in Dallas, I struggled to fill the last three police academy classes in Dallas. I know that we have significant openings here in the city of Atlanta. I'm working very diligently to make sure that our demographics of our department continue to reflect our community.

CORNISH: But just to stop you for a moment - you know, shortly before his death, Baton Rouge police officer Montrell Jackson had this Facebook posting where he said, (reading) I swear to god I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me. And he wrote, (reading) in uniform, I get nasty, hateful looks and out of uniform, some consider me a threat. These are trying times. This was a black officer.

TURNER: Absolutely. I received an email from a black investigator and a white investigator, by the way, who was out working undercover in the protests and then working as a protester. And the email really talked about how vile the comments were towards the police. And so they really wanted to have a voice to be able to say, that's not us. That's not the profession that I love.

And so I can't say - I haven't seen that particular posting for the officer that was slain in Baton Rouge, but I will say this - I grew up in the city of Atlanta. I am 57 years old. I'm a black male. And I've had very positive experiences in my time in living in the city of Atlanta. I believe that it was because leaders in our city made some decisions early on. In 1948, we hired our first black police officers. And since that time, we've been very intentional to make sure that our police department was diverse and that it reflected the community that we were supposed to be representing.

CORNISH: As you mentioned, you've been in law enforcement in Atlanta for some 35 years. You're African-American. What are you feeling in this moment? How bad is it?

TURNER: We are in a difficult time in law enforcement around America. And I had a chance to talk to those two investigators who sent me that email last Sunday. And I talked to them because they said that I don't believe the senior staff understand the kind of issues that we're dealing with on the front line. But I had an opportunity to remind those young investigators that I was in the very same place they were in some 20 years ago, when the Rodney King verdict came up and we had cars being burned and tear gas being deployed on protesters in this city, that I was working as a - undercover as a protester and heard all of those issues some 20 years ago.

I believe our relationship with our community got better from that place. And I believe if we keep working and having conversations with people that don't necessarily look like police departments around this country, we will change the narrative of what we're seeing in America between law enforcement and our citizens' encounters.

CORNISH: Atlanta Police Chief George Turner. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

TURNER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.