Placing the Police

For the last two-plus years, the place of the police in our society has been at the forefront not only here in Atlanta, but nationwide. But given the murder of Rayshard Brooks at the hands of an APD officer in the summer of 2020 and the city’s total lack of a meaningful response, followed by their steadfast refusal to consider that maybe tearing down hundreds of acres of intact forestland in order to build a playground for cops isn’t the best idea, or that maybe the solution to overcrowding in county jails isn’t more incarceration, these issues are especially prominent here in the city.

All of the love for – and desire to throw money at – the police amongst our city’s leadership belies the fact that Atlanta is already heavily invested in the police. We are already the most surveilled city in the United States, with nearly 50 surveillance cameras for every 1,000 people (NOTE: this is something we can’t map because the APD denied our open records request for data on the locations of these surveillance cameras, suggesting that sharing this data would lead to terrorism). On top of that, we’re also subject to a complex and overlapping set of police and security agencies with the power to control our everyday lives and subject us (and definitely some of us more than others) to violence with impunity.

As my friend and collaborator Steve Sherman notes in his recently published paper about policing in Atlanta, “in only the three square miles of central Atlanta, Georgia, USA, there are 11 different patrol agencies of fully sworn public sector ‘real cops’ with boots on the ground, guns at their hips, and full arrest powers”. On top of that, he documents the role of the private ‘non-sworn’ business improvement district security forces of Central Atlanta Progress and the Midtown Alliance, but doesn’t even get to touch on the DeKalb County police just a few miles to the east of downtown. Cumulatively then, when we’re talking about the police in Atlanta, we’re talking about not one, but FOURTEEN separate police and security agencies just within the city limits. Using some of the information from Steve’s paper and what resources we could find online explaining the boundaries of these overlapping jurisdictions, we mapped these 14 different agencies and their geographic remit within the City of Atlanta.

While some of these boundaries may be a bit fuzzy, we’ve opted to lean more towards a conservative definition of each jurisdiction. For instance, MARTA’s police force apparently has jurisdiction across the entirety of Fulton and DeKalb counties, but we’ve opted only to map their jurisdiction at MARTA stations and along train and bus routes. Similarly, while Emory’s police mirror the Georgia Tech and Georgia State University police in having jurisdiction anywhere within 500 yards of a university-owned property, they go a step further. According to the Emory Police website, their remit also extends to within “one-quarter mile of any public street or sidewalk connecting different buildings and campuses”. When you take into account that Emory’s main campus and Midtown Hospital location are a full five miles apart with countless roads connecting them, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch that Emory’s police could claim jurisdiction anywhere in that entire part of the city, rather than just the most direct route we’ve included going from Briarcliff Road to Ponce de Leon Avenue. Add onto those cases that one of the most consistent elements of the various definitions of police jurisdiction is the fact that they can seemingly be deputized to operate in other jurisdictions practically instantaneously, making all of these borders subject to change in practice.

In addition to looking at the specific boundaries of each of these police agencies, we can also look at them quantitatively to understand which part of the city have the most jurisdictional overlap. No matter where one is in the city, you’re always subject to at least two different police agencies in the form of the Atlanta Police Department and either the Fulton County or DeKalb County Police. But throughout much of the city’s central core, there is even more overlap. Based on our analysis, there are multiple places across Downtown and Midtown where a person would simultaneously be subject to seven different police agencies. This is perhaps most notable around Emory’s Midtown Hospital location, where the combination of APD, Fulton County Police, Emory Police, police from Georgia Tech or Georgia State and MARTA Police, along with the Midtown Blue and Downtown Ambassadors security forces, would all have jurisdiction. In fact, as the map below shows, pretty much all across the north-south spine that connects Downtown and Midtown, there are rarely fewer than five different police forces with jurisdiction.

It should be noted that these overlapping jurisdictions represent just one way of measuring and mapping the expanding presence of the police in our city and our everyday lives. Across countless neighborhoods in and beyond the City of Atlanta, police are unevenly distributed in their patrols, focusing on some areas more than others even when there are only one or two agencies with jurisdiction in that place. Nonetheless, these maps help to show that far from defunding – let alone abolishing – the police in Atlanta, our city’s elected officials and other leaders continue to invest in the police and entrust them with solving society’s problems, in spite of overwhelming evidence that they not only can’t solve them, but in fact actively make them worse.

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