When Dave Wilkinson came onboard as Atlanta Police Foundation’s (APF) President and CEO in 2005, he brought with him 22 years of experience with the Secret Service and one overarching lesson—to create successful outcomes, you need a collaborative approach.
As head of the APF, that’s meant working with the Atlanta Mayor, Chief of Police and local business partners, like the Chick-fil-A Foundation, to build—and execute—a plan for a safer Atlanta. And, with much of the city’s crime taking place in Vine City and English Avenue areas on the Westside, Dave knew it would take a truly collective effort to bring about lasting change.
A Plan for the Westside
When Dave and the APF kicked off the Westside Security Plan in early 2016, 11 of the 12 murders so far that year in Atlanta had happened on the Westside.
“Every security plan begins with creating security measures that collectively serve as a deterrent against crime,” Dave says. “While we can’t have a police officer on every corner stopping crime, we can have 24-hour surveillance with cameras and bright blue lights. It’s the next best thing.”
That’s why the first phase of the APF’s Westside Security Plan included installing over 100 surveillance cameras throughout the Westside neighborhoods with Operation Shield.
Next up was to create officer housing for Atlanta Police Department (APD) officers, so they could live right alongside residents—attending the same community meetings, going to the same schools, and becoming a real part of the neighborhood. According to Dave, this is critically important to the long-term revitalization of the area.
“The relationship between community and police officers has never been more important,” Dave says. “This is allowing us to build trust, and what we’ve learned is that 99 percent of Westside residents want exactly what we’re doing. By living and working in the neighborhood, the officers will be able to have a generational impact.”
APF partnered with Pulte Homes to build 25 officer homes. The first five officers and their families are already living in their new homes, and the other 20 homes are getting ready to start construction. But, the 20 homes won’t only be for officers: APF is partnering with Pulte and the Westside Future Fund to provide 10 of the homes to legacy residents from the Westside so residents and officers will truly live side-by-side.
The third phase of the plan was to roll out a Westside Security Patrol dubbed “Westside Blue.” Made up of off-duty officers in uniform and a patrol car, Westside Blue’s only job is to patrol the neighborhoods, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We recognized that many areas of the city were short-staffed when it came to patrol officers, and most of them spent the majority of their time responding to 9-1-1 calls instead of patrolling,” Dave says. “This was our strategy to offset that.”
Since implementing these three phases of the plan, APF, along with Police Chief Erika Shields and the APD, has seen promising results: With an initial goal of 10 percent reduction in crime over three years, the Westside has already seen a 39 percent drop in the first year.
But that doesn’t mean Dave and his team are done.
“While we’re pleased with the progress, my biggest challenge and concern is that people will think the work is finished,” Dave says. “Crime can always spike back up. As we look to create a better path for these kids, it’s key we continue to work collectively.”
At-Promise, not At-Risk
To see a collective approach in action, look no further than the At-Promise Center on Cameron Madison Alexander Boulevard—the heart of English Avenue, one of the toughest areas in the Westside.
Opened in Summer 2017, the center serves as an after-school gathering spot for kids living in the neighborhood and offers full wrap-around services—educational, recreational, social and emotional, therapeutic and workforce development—through its partners: Atlanta Police Athletic League, Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta, CHRIS 180, Street Smart Youth Project and Urban League of Greater Atlanta.
It also serves as a diversion center.
Here's what that means: If youth are arrested for a non-violent offense, the APD will bring them to the At-Promise Center instead of to jail. The APF will then give them support and a prescription list of things to do, like go through their programming, get a GED and get a job. If they check everything off that list by the end of the year, the arrest will be taken off their permanent record.
“This is the most important thing we have going,” Dave says. “We believe it’s the most innovative program of its kind in the country.”
The At-Promise Center is not only helping to create new pathways for youth, it’s helping to change the culture of the police department. Instead of a police officer’s first interaction with youth being with handcuffs and the back of a patrol car, it’s being with them as mentors and friends. Participation from the APD has been crucial to this part of the program’s success: All officers living in officer housing in the neighborhood mentor at the center. In fact, all new officers are required to work as mentors at the center when they join the APD.
“We hope it becomes a part of their DNA to be mentors to the kids in our city,” Dave says.
The response to the At-Promise Center has been so positive, Dave says the APF is currently in the process of purchasing land to expand. Also on the horizon, the remaining 20 homes for officers and legacy residents will open by year-end.
While improving safety on the Westside continues to be number one priority, Dave knows his responsibilities span beyond those neighborhoods—and he’s excited about the possibilities.
“What we’ve done on the Westside is replicable,” he says. “We will be able to go to other areas of the city and do the same thing. It’s been the collective synergy from all of our partners that’s made it possible.”