APD full of young officers; Veterans on the move

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ATLANTA —

The city of Atlanta is nearing its long-promised goal of a 2,000-officer police force.

A less known fact is that scores of veteran officers have left in recent years. Channel 2's Richard Belcher found that many of them are quitting before they reach retirement.

To reach the 2,000-officer goal, Mayor Kasim Reed's administration has hired nearly 700 new officers in recent years, but even the police chief acknowledges a younger, less experienced force is not without risks.

The overall experience level is now driven down even further because of the number of officers leaving mid-career.

Recruits spend 21 weeks in the Atlanta Police Academy. The hours are long and demanding, but police know better than anyone that there are limits to what an officer learns there.

Street experience and the improved judgment that comes with time are essential. Atlanta's good news is that there are a lot of new officers, but critics say that is not always a good thing.

"So you have that double-edged sword of filling your ranks, but you also have what I refer to as a brain drain," said Andrew Scott, who has 30 years in law enforcement, including time as police chief in Boca Raton, Fla.

"The unfortunate thing about officers that have maybe two or four years, is that they think they are starting to get it, which they probably are, but they haven't seen enough," said Scott.

A Channel 2 investigation found that Atlanta has substantially more inexperienced officers and fewer with veteran experience.

Over six years, the number of officers with under one year on the force is up 85 percent. The number with zero-10 years' experience is up 32 percent, and the number with 10-20 years' experience is down 25 percent.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said that is not a problem.

"We are fortunate to be able to be adding to our department, where other departments around the country are cutting back," said Turner.

Turner said the median age of Atlanta's hundreds of new officers is 28. They are mature and often have police experience elsewhere.

Belcher asked Turner about the loss of so many veterans in mid-career.

"When you look at the technology advancements that we're doing in law enforcement, bringing new people on that embrace those changes are huge opportunities in law enforcement," said Turner.

According to experts, it is widely accepted that more younger officers means more vehicle accidents and often more complaints of undue force. A 31-year-old rookie was fired in July, days after he was involved in a collision that killed a 59-year-old woman.

He'd been on the street about six weeks.

Belcher asked Turner, "Should you be braced for more automobile accidents, more citizen complaints because you have more young officers out there?"

"Well, that is a fair question. We look at numbers to drive our decisions," said Turner.

Veterans aren't immune to bad judgment, as shown by the infamous botched drug raid death of Kathryn Johnson in 2006 and the 2009 raid on the Eagle Bar.

"We've fired a number of officers that have been out of line of what our SOP (standard operating procedures) have been. They weren't necessarily young officers. They were veteran officers," said Turner.

Turner said the department has not seen an uptick in accidents or citizen complaints. He told Belcher he believes younger officers will be quicker to embrace the various new technologies his department is bringing online.

While Turner told Belcher he is not worried about a 25 percent drop in the number of officers with 10-20 years in uniform, the police union that represents about half the force told Belcher hiring is one thing, but keeping officers is another.

According to APD, crime is down 16 percent from three years ago, and felonies and violent offenses are lower than they've been in decades. They city is on track to have fewer than 100 homicides for the fourth straight year.

"You can bring 5,000 officers, but if they are going in the front door, if they're coming in the front door, but they're leaving out the back door, then all you're doing is putting tape over a hole that is continuing to flood," said  Kliff Grimes, of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

Grimes predicts Atlanta will continue to lose officers, partly because younger officers aren't as loyal.

"What we have to do is fix the problem, find out what's going on with why morale is so low and why are other agencies are able to come and take these officers," said Grimes.

Grimes agrees with the experts, who say more young officers may mean more vehicle accidents and more citizen complaints. Grimes' focus is the attrition rate. He knows it is down but contends that doesn't tell the whole story.

"Now, whether it's at a rate of 20 percent or 15 percent shouldn't matter as much as why they are leaving," said Grimes.

Atlanta Police Department officials told Belcher the attrition rate dropped from 6.2 percent of the force in 2008, to 4.2 percent last year. Officials told Belcher the department should swear in their 2,000th officer late next year or early 2014.

Both the union and the department plan to watch that trend.