By: Matt Scott
Around 5 a.m. on June 6, about 16 hours into a city council meeting that started the afternoon before, Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan introduced legislation requesting the Atlanta Police Foundation (APF) add two additional seats to its 50-member board of trustees to be filled by members of the Atlanta City Council.
Wan said the addition of two council seats to the APF’s board would bring transparency and accountability to the foundation. The city council passed the legislation 14-1, with only Councilmember Antonio Lewis voting in opposition.
Any sitting government official on the foundation’s board would be a departure from the organization’s historical position. For over two decades, the APF operated without public oversight. By original design, no public officials served on its board of trustees.
While Atlanta ranks 39th in total population in the United States, over the course of its existence, the APF grew to be the largest police foundation in the country. In 2020, the APF raised $9.5 million according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC), second only to the New York City Police Foundation, which raised $11.9 million. With the introduction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, the APF nearly tripled its income, receiving just under $26 million in contributionsin 2021, while the New York Police Foundation brought in just under $8 million.
How, over the course of two decades, did this police foundation in the mid-sized city of Atlanta grow to become the largest in the country?
Zooming out and starting back at the beginning is important to contextualize the growth and changing approaches of the APF. The first of this two-part series will cover the early years of the APF, where it served as an often-supplemental force to the Atlanta Police Department (APD) before becoming a “well-funded and politically influential organization,” as one police union head called the foundation.
Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington in 2003
The early years of the APF are deeply tied to one individual: former APD Chief Richard Pennington, who ran the department from 2002 to the end of 2009. During his tenure as police chief, the APF transitioned from a startup non-profit to a well-funded political power player in the city of Atlanta.
“He wants it, we ought to give it to him”
At the behest of Pennington, Atlanta City Council unanimously passed legislation authorizing the creation of an Atlanta Police and Fire Foundation in July 2002.
Pennington, who joined APD on May 8, 2002, after an eight-year stint as the Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), attained some notoriety during his tenure in New Orleans. In 1994, Pennington brought in the FBI to help uncover corruption in NOPD, leading to the arrest of over 30 officers.
In addition to the FBI, Pennington also brought a police foundation to New Orleans in his first year.
Police foundations date back to 1970 with the creation of the National Police Foundation, now known as the National Police Institute. The following year, the first municipal police foundation in the country was launched in New York City. Police foundations did not become a widespread phenomenon until the 2000s, but Pennington saw their utility when he tried the model in New Orleans in 1995.
Just four months into his tenure with APD, Pennington launched the APF with a $5,000 donation from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. Pennington hoped the foundation would supplement what he believed to be an undersized APD budget. “This will be a great benefit for us in the long haul,” Pennington told the AJC at the time. “I was able to raise $1 million in the first year in New Orleans, and they have nowhere near the resources that Atlanta has. The sky is the limit here.”
Those resources came in the form of financial and logistical support for the foundation from major Atlanta neighborhood business associations like Central Atlanta Progress, the Buckhead Coalition and the Midtown Alliance. Leaders from those associations helped create the foundation’s operating structure, including its board. Sam Massell, former Atlanta mayor and then-President of the Buckhead Coalition, told the AJC, “A police foundation will make a big difference in Atlanta. This shows our support of the chief from the business community. He wants it, and we ought to give it to him.”
An early version of the APF’s website describes the APF as an intended bridge between the public and private sectors of Atlanta. “The APF’s board of trustees, now being formed, will consist of a broad cross-section of Atlanta’s business and community leadership,” says the 2003 version of the website. “By design, no elected officials or city employees will be eligible for membership on the board.”
In January 2003, the boards of the Downtown, Midtown and Buckhead business associations came up with a plan to create start-up support for the APF. The chair of the foundation’s board of directors, Cal Darden, a United Parcel Service executive, told the AJC he wanted to see the foundation raise $3 to $5 million over the next three years.
Business leaders, it seemed, had big plans for the APF.
“More people are concerned about traffic than they are about crime”
For its part, the APF launched into its first full year of operations with an expensive splash. In January 2003, the foundation contracted Linder and Associates, a now defunct firm out of New York City, to write a report reviewing how the APD investigates, classifies and reports on the city’s crimes. Pennington worked with Linder during his tenure with NOPD and recommended the firm to the APF.
The foundation invested a considerable portion of the $540,600 in income it made that year to the development of the report. The initial cost of the report was $200,000, but the foundation’s 2003 tax form shows that cost grew to $264,809by the end of the year. The final cost of the report, which came out in early 2004, was $826,000 according to 2006 editorial in the AJC from the president of the Atlanta firefighter’s union.
The APF released the Linder Report, entitled “Fragile Momentum,” at the foundation’s inaugural annual breakfast event for business leaders called “Crime is Toast” in February 2004. Linder found that crime reports had been either intentionally suppressed or lost through sloppy record keeping, resulting in altered crime statistics. The report also cited several police officers who said that crime was purposefully underreported in the run-up to the city’s bid for the Olympics to make Atlanta appear to be a safer city to visitors and Olympic officials.
Atlantans at the time felt safe in their city, Chief Pennington said. Pennington, addressing the business leaders at the 2004 APF breakfast, said, “More [Atlantans] are concerned with traffic than they are with crime.”
Fragile Momentum, however, painted a different picture of Atlanta than what residents saw. Over the next week, outlets both local and national released a flurry of articles about the report.
The AJC published a recap of the APF breakfast that debuted Fragile Momentum on Feb. 20, 2004, listing highlights of the report, including the findings that “thousands of fugitives and murderers wander Atlanta streets with little worry that they’ll be tracked down. Fugitives usually aren’t taken into custody until picked up on a traffic stop or another crime,” and “[the] revolving-door justice system in Fulton County Superior Court ensures that many burglars, drug dealers, car thieves and purse snatchers – even if caught – spend little time in jail.”
In 2003, before the requesting the Linder Report, Pennington presciently cited understaffing and equipment as APD’s largest problems. At the police foundation’s breakfast, Pennington told business leaders he would use the findings to bring on an additional 300 officers and improve pay and equipment for the department.
Then-Mayor Shirley Franklin also spoke at the foundation’s breakfast and went a step further than Pennington. Franklin told business leaders that she wanted to hire 500 more officers and raise APD officers’ pay by 40 percent.
Then, on Feb. 21, 2004, The New York Times quoted Pennington portraying Atlanta as the most dangerous city. The chief told the Times, “Atlanta has consistently topped the lists of the most violent and dangerous cities through the years.”
Unlike Mayor Franklin, City Councilmembers were not aware of the report’s findings in advance. At a Public Safety Committee meeting, Chairman H. Lamar Willis told the AJC, “At the minimum, the council should have gotten a briefing [before the report was released]. This really, really doesn’t sit well.”
At the next Public Safety Committee meeting after the report was released, Councilmember C.T. Martin challenged Pennington’s designation of Atlanta as the most dangerous city and questioned the validity of the report itself.
In the face of criticism from city councilmembers, Pennington walked back the “most dangerous city” designation, and Elizabeth Kelly, Executive Director of the APF from 2003 to 2005, told the Public Safety Committee that the Council did not receive a briefing because the report was only completed the night before the foundation’s yearly breakfast.
Exactly who was responsible for the APF’s decision to seek and release the report came into question.
One of the AJC articles published after the Linder report was released called the Atlanta Police Foundation, “Chief Richard Pennington’s Police Foundation.” Sam Pettway, who helped bring Pennington to Atlanta in 2002 and served as the APF’s vice-chairman at the time the Linder report was released in 2004, wrote an editorial in the AJC correcting the paper’s statement and defending the foundation. Pettway opened the editorial, entitled, “Atlanta can become nation’s safest city,” by saying, “The Atlanta Police Foundation is not ‘Chief Richard Pennington’s Foundation.’” Pettway explained that the APF is “an independent nonprofit,” and “by charter, no city employees or elected officials––no cops––sit on the board.”
For their part, as Pennington reported at the business breakfast, regular Atlantans were not overly concerned about crime in the city. Despite Linder’s claim that, “murderers walk Atlanta streets with little worry,” the report found that, “less than a third of residents questioned in the study considered crime to be Atlanta’s No. 1 problem.”
At the end of the year, Franklin failed to deliver on the promises she made at the APF breakfast. Instead of 40 percent, APD received a 4 percent raise that year, which was still 3 percent higher than all other city employees, including firefighters. Franklin also vetoed an amendment that passed the city council to fund an additional 100 police officers.
“If there’s a perception Atlanta isn’t a safe city…”
Despite Cal Darden’s goal of raising $3-5 million in APF’s first three years, the foundation had only brought in a little over $1 million by the end of its second year.
In 2005, however, the APF began to find its footing, launching several initiatives over the next three years and taking a more prominent role in the conversation about public safety in Atlanta. The foundation quietly hired a new president, Dave Wilkinson, who was serving as the Special Agent in Charge of the Secret Service Atlanta Field Office prior to joining the APF. Tripling its previous yearly fundraising, the foundation brought in $1.5 million in fundraising for the year.
After the uproar created by the Linder Report, the APF also began repairing its public reputation in 2005. That year, the foundation launched a police officer housing program and footed the bill for the purchase of three horses to restart APD’s mounted patrol unit, which had been disbanded in 2002 due to budget concerns. Both Pennington and his second in command, Assistant Police Chief Alan Dreher, came from cities—New Orleans and Washington D.C., respectively—that frequently used mounted patrols. Dreher told the AJC, “Early on, we thought of bringing the mounted patrol back…They’re good for crowd control. They also have a public relations purpose that they serve.”
In 2006, the foundation continued to receive good coverage in local media.
The APF’s “Crime is Toast” breakfast in September that year, headlined once again by Mayor Franklin, received a write-up in The Atlanta Voice, two news articles in the AJC and a centerpiece on the Opinions Page of the AJC by the paper’s editorial page editor, Cynthia Tucker.
“The Atlanta Police Foundation’s third annual ‘Crime is Toast’ awards breakfast turned out to be an extravagant event that included an elite roster of guests,” wrote Dennis Malcom Byron Jr. in the Atlanta Voice. Byron described the event as exhibiting “the newest in surveillance technology and weaponry,” and highlighted a remote-control robot with a shotgun arm.
In the wake of the Linder Report, however, residents’ thinking on crime in Atlanta shifted. In 2006, Atlanta’s crime rate was the lowest it had been since 1969, yet the public’s perception—driven by news coverage—was that crime was out of control. Pennington told attendees of the foundation’s breakfast, “The first thing we want to address is the perception of crime in the city. I don’t care how hard we work and how much we bring crime down, if there is a perception that Atlanta is not a safe city, people are not going to feel safe.”
To address these fears, Pennington once again called for an additional 200-300 officers, as well as increasing the size of specialty units like narcotics, guns, and gangs. The chief found ready support in the media.
“Last year, Atlanta enjoyed another significant drop in crime,” the AJC’s Tucker opened her editorial. To keep that trend going, Tucker wrote, “more than anything else, Pennington needs more police. The downtown area lacks a consistent, visible presence of uniformed officers. That makes all the difference in making residents feel safe and in actually keeping them safe.”
In December, Wilkinson voiced support Pennington with an editorial in the AJC. Wilkinson called Pennington’s leadership of APD “visionary” and repeated the ‘violent crimes were the lowest since 1969” statistic that the September coverage offered. “We are in good hands with Chief Richard Pennington,” Wilkinson concluded.
Becoming “a well-funded and politically influential organization”
In 2007, the APF launched two programs that continue to this day.
First, the foundation debuted the Atlanta Crime Stoppers program, with a 24-hour hotline that offers rewards for information resulting in the arrest and indictment of crimes in the area. Then, in March, the foundation launched the camera program “Operation Shield” in partnership with APD and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. The program started that year with 13 cameras in Downtown, launching just before the NCAA hosted its College Basketball Final Four in Atlanta. Operation Shield now boasts over 16,000 integrated cameras.
The APF launched another program in 2008 that did not have the staying power of Crime Stoppers or Operation Shield. In September that year, the foundation joined with business associations in the city to install “homeless meters” in hopes of discouraging panhandling. The program cost $40,000, with each machine costing $315. The idea was that visitors to the city would put their spare change in the meters instead of giving it to unhoused individuals. The money would then be funneled into Gateway, Atlanta’s largest homeless shelter, and other programs to help the city’s unhoused population.
None of the money went to improving the lives of Atlanta’s unhoused population. Despite promises from the APF and business community that $40,000 homeless meters program would go to Gateway, six years later, WABE found that the collected fees were all sitting in a bank account, unused.
While the business community became a happy partner to the foundation, not everyone was thrilled with the growth of the APF.
In June 2006, Jim Daws, President of the Atlanta Professional Firefighters Association at the time, wrote an editorial in the AJC largely focused on the APF. “Since its inception,” Daws wrote, “the [APF] has become a very well-funded and politically influential organization.”
Daws noted the fire department was left behind with the creation of the APF. “In July 2002, the Atlanta City Council unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to create an Atlanta Police and Fire Foundation,” Daws wrote. “Just two months later a foundation was established attracting a who’s-who of Atlanta’s corporate community. Trouble is, it was now just the Atlanta Police Foundation—the Fire Department was somehow omitted.”
The firefighters’ union was not alone in taking issue with the APF. In a 2008 article in the AJC on Dave Wilkinson’s salary, Sgt. Scott Kreher, the local police union president at the time, is quoted saying, “We were shocked to find out Wilkinson’s salary. The foundation is a fairly new project in Atlanta, so we feel like it is a little exorbitant.”
Wilkinson’s salary was indeed outsized in comparison to his peers. The AJC wrote that the Atlanta CEO’s $211,000 salary was just $5,000 less than the president of the NYC Police Foundation. For comparison, in 2007 the APF brought in $800,770 in revenue, while the NYC Police Foundation brought in almost $7 million.
The APF board and business community backed Wilkinson. “I think Dave [Wilkinson] should make more money than what he’s making now,” APF vice-chair Sam Pettway told the AJC. “He’s absolutely that valuable.”
Sam Massell, still serving as president of the Buckhead coalition in 2008, took to the AJC with an editorial defending the APF and its CEO Wilkinson. “The Buckhead Coalition was proud to be the catalyst in creation of our city’s APF with organizational and funding arrangements,” Massell wrote. “We have been pleased with its services and believe Dave Wilkinson has been an excellent choice as its head.”
Supported by the business community, the APF continued to pay Wilkinson at a high rate.
Still, such a large salary was a drain on the foundation, which saw a drop in revenue in 2007 and 2008. The foundation reported a net loss of $436,087 and $516,063 in those two years respectively.
“To accommodate Wilkinson’s salary,” the AJC said, “the board aimed to bring in more revenue, setting a goal of at least $1 million a year in total revenue.’
The APF ended 2008 with just $370,473 in assets. Another year like the prior two could have been the end for the foundation.
A city under siege
On Jan. 7, 2009, a bartender named John Henderson was shot and killed during a botched robbery while working his job at the Standard Food and Spirits, which sat in the space Augustine’s currently resides in off Memorial Drive in Grant Park. The next day, the AJC reported that Henderson was killed “execution style.” The AJC summarized police reporting, “One of the robbers stood over Henderson and shot him, though he had not resisted or put up a fight…Henderson was shot twice in the head and once in each leg. He died later at Grady Memorial Hospital.”
Henderson’s killing kicked off a wave of crime paranoia in Atlanta.
On Jan. 10, 2009, the AJC ran a headline, “For intowners, slaying represents fears.” Next to the headline, a graph that showed crimes in 2008 were nearly as low as they were in 2005—the year that Pennington and the APF boasted Atlanta had seen a significant reduction in crime. A second headline under the Jan. 10 story read, “Fear uniting city residents.”
The city did indeed unite around combatting crime. Residents joined newly formed community groups like Atlantans Together Against Crime (ATAC), which began in December 2008 after its founder, Kyle Keyser, was robbed at gunpoint. By September 2009, ATAC had over 10,000 members, and Keyser ran for mayor that year.
On Jan. 25, 2009, 61 restauranteurs came together for a “Dine out for Safety” event. One of the restauranteurs who organized the event told the AJC it was meant “to send a message to the criminals [that] hey, we’re not going to sit back and take it. We’re going to do something about it.” The proceeds from the event went to the APF.
In February 2009, the APF released a report claiming that Atlanta had the second-fewest officers per capita than 11 other large cities and arguing that Atlanta should hire more police officers, which Chief Pennington had been saying for years. The AJC noted that a separate analysis conducted by the paper with eight different cities showed Atlanta ranked third for total number of officers and fifth for officers per capita.
Wilkinson himself took to the AJC to argue for more officers in a March 25, 2009, op-ed entitled “Political leaders must show they put safety first.” The foundation called for 300-500 more officers “in order to bring Atlanta up to an average range of the comparison cities,” and wanted to see 2,500 officers by 2014. In January of 2009, APD had 1,723 officers.
The foundation president took things a step further, calling for political change in addition to more police.
“Mayor Shirley Franklin recently committed to boosting the police force,” Wilkinson concluded in his op-ed, “but with city elections this fall, it also gives us a chance to recommit our efforts to electing—or re-electing, in some cases—leaders who will make public safety a top priority.”
The anti-crime fervor did not let up over summer. A local television station dubbed Atlanta the “City Under Siege” in July 2009. Then, on Aug. 7, 2009, the AJC dedicated an entire editorial page to crime with Atlanta, with columns by the AJC editorial board, Chief Pennington and ATAC’s Keyser.
Keyser blamed Pennington for the perceived crime epidemic. “Pennington,” Keyser wrote, “admitted that criminals do not fear APD.” He went on to laud Mayor Franklin for committing to hiring more police officers, focusing on gangs by doubling the size of the Gang Task Force and enforcing the city’s youth curfew.
The AJC editorial board noted that crime was down in Atlanta but, “perception can trump reality if people’s emotions keep them from believing that crime really is on the run.”
Pennington’s editorial likewise noted that crime was down 10 percent, which he credited in part to the APF, writing, “A new APF advocates for the department and attracts private funding.”
Fiddling leaders, flaring fears
While the APF’s popularity was increasing, Pennington’s began to fall.
On Sept. 10, 2009, Atlanta Police Officers from the drugs division and the SWAT-like Red Dog unit raided The Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar off Ponce De Leon in Atlanta’s Midtown neighborhood, which prompted an outcry in the LGTBQ community.
According to the Georgia Voice, in a press conference on Sept. 14, 2009, Pennington defended the bar raid to reporters, saying undercover officers previously witnessed illegal activity at the bar and officers conducted themselves properly during the raid.
The reality, however, was different than Pennington’s portrayal. During the raid, patrons and employees were subject to slurs and violence. The resulting lawsuit settlements cost the city over $1 million.
Pennington and Franklin spent years touting the importance of the growth of specialty units like those involved in the raid of the Atlanta Eagle. To have those units create such a problem for the chief further soured public opinion of him. Days after the raid, Pennington announced his plan to retire at the end of Franklin’s mayoral term.
Despite the fallout from the raid, crime narratives still dominated local media.
On Sept. 20, 2009, the AJC ran the first of a seven-part weekly series about the issues Atlantans most cared about ahead of the upcoming Nov. 3 election. Unsurprisingly, crime was the number one concern, and the AJC dedicated most of its front page to the topic, in addition to three entire pages later in the first section of the newspaper. “City leaders fiddle as crime fears flare,” read the frontpage headline.
Most of the Sept. 20 crime story for the AJC focused on the number of APD officers patrolling the streets, even though the paper noted that crime rates are untethered from the number of officers in APD. GSU criminologist and founder of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange Robert Friedman told the AJC, “There’s a limit to how much officers can impact. If someone wants to commit a crime, they’ll commit a crime.”
The AJC’s attitude toward Pennington was significantly more critical than previous coverage. “Pennington said he ‘added’ more than 300 officers since he became chief,” the article stated. “But he did not account for the hundreds who left during that time.”
Despite the acknowledgment that the number of APD officers was not a driving factor in crime rates, the AJC still noted that officers were departing APD at higher than national rates. “A recent study by the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, which is closely tied to Pennington,” the article continued, “found that annual turnover in law enforcement agencies averages 5% to 7%. Atlanta’s attrition rate: 9.2%.”
The APF had become one of the drivers of public safety narratives in Atlanta, having even sponsored a mayoral debate on public safety earlier in September. Wilkinson told the AJC, “It’s particularly important now to educate voters on public safety matters as the city decides on new leadership this fall.”
The AJC reported that crime was the number one concern for Atlantans in that year’s municipal election season. All four mayoral candidates invited to the APF’s debate argued for increased spending on policing.
Nov. 1, 2009, two days before Election Day, Wilkinson once again took to the AJC.
“A stream of seemingly random and senseless violent acts in Atlanta this year have stoked fears and increased perceptions of runaway crime, putting public safety at the top of this fall’s mayoral campaign agenda,” read Wilkinson’s op-ed in the AJC. “Any discussion of public safety in Atlanta must begin and end with boosting the number of police officers.”
During the APF-sponsored mayoral debate, former State Senator Kasim Reed promised to hire 750 officers over the course of his term. Reed was the candidate who came closest to promising to hit Wilkinson’s goal of 2,500 officers by 2014, just 100 short of what the foundation said. Reed would go on to win the mayoral runoff in December 2009.
Taking advantage of the hype
At the end of the AJC’s multipage coverage of crime concerns in Atlanta there was an acknowledgement that the inciting event for the “City Under Siege” panic—the killing of bartender John Henderson—stemmed from inaccurate reporting by the APD.
Three days after the killing of Henderson, the AJC reported on the inaccuracies in the APD’s statements. The link to the article is no longer available on the AJC’s website, but Creative Loafing summarized it on Jan. 10, saying, “The AJC reports today that Atlanta police have corrected numerous details that were released in the hours after John Henderson, a bartender at the Standard Food and Spirits, was killed Jan. 7. The most ‘startling’ correction about Henderson’s death? According to the AJC, ‘His killers might not have meant to kill him.’”
“Much of what was reported about Henderson’s killing turned out to be false,” the AJC later wrote in the Sept. 20 crime article. “He was not shot execution style. Nor was he wounded four times. He was hit once in the leg during the robbery and once again in the head, maybe by accident, as the robbers fled.”
The financial crisis of 2008 had led to layoffs and furloughs in the APD. The false initial narrative surrounding Henderson’s killing in January 2009 carried more weight than the correction to that reporting days later and turned the public’s perception of safety in Atlanta on a dime and caused resources to flow back into the APD.
“All that followed—protests over police furloughs, a property tax increase to put officers back to work full time, ‘the city under siege’ media frenzy over later crimes—was based on inaccurate information provided by a police detective the day of Henderson’s killing,” the AJC said.
Despite subsequent calls for more police on the streets, a lack of patrol officers was also not to blame for Henderson’s killing. At the time of the robbery, an officer was on patrol just 500 feet away from the restaurant. “Short of standing guard at the Standard, it appears the officer could have done little to prevent the crime,” the AJC said.
Keyser told the AJC that a more accurate account likely would not have created the same outrage. Because of how the Henderson story was initially reported, in 2009, other stories about crime and a need for more police dominated headlines. Op-eds from Pennington and Wilkinson supported the call for more police, and the APF shaped the conversation on public safety through a mayoral debate.
The APF, which was in a strained financial position throughout 2007 and 2008, had a banner year in 2009. With $370,473 in net assets at the end of 2008, another year like the two before would have put the APF underwater. Instead, during the 2009 year of the “City Under Siege,” the foundation %$2,024,918, ending the year with an $850,975 surplus.
Of the falsely reported narrative of Henderson’s killing and the resulting shift of priorities in Atlanta toward increasing the number of police, Keyser told the AJC, “You almost can’t deny there’s some taking advantage of the hype. We live in a culture where that’s prevalent.”