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Chief Erika Shields returns to crowds Thursday, speaks about policing in Atlanta amid protests

She spoke about the protests, policing in America and why she had to fire two of her officers after a controversial arrest.

ATLANTA — Atlanta's leaders showed up for the another night of protests Thursday in Atlanta amid a social movement sweeping across the United States.

For the seventh straight night, protesters flooded to the streets of the city near Centennial Olympic Park to make their voices heard as they demand changes to policing in America. The demonstrations were sparked by the death of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died after a Minneapolis Police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes while Floyd was was handcuffed. 

On Thursday, both Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields were on site for the protests, which have become routine in the city. It was not Shields' first time among the crowd, but her first time back after the frenetic protests of last weekend turned chaotic and violent

She told 11Alive's Brendan Keefe that those early days, unfortunately, set the tone for the need for extra policing of the demonstrations, which she is supportive of. 

"I don't think that what I'm doing (being here among the crowd) is particularly unique, it's part of our culture at APD," Shields said. "We're used to, as APD, to interacting and hearing the protesters. That is not abnormal for us."

"What is unusual is that we're in a space where we can't have the protests ongoing and interacting with the protesters along the route," she added. "What's unfortunate is we're in a space right now where protesters can't march as openly as they do, and we're having to have the National Guard; we're having barricades, we have a curfew and I just - the sooner we can get to a space where we know the protests can resume safely, we'll all be better for it."

Though there has been an increased law enforcement presence, that has sometimes pitted them against the crowd, there have been numerous instances of police and protesters engaging in conversations. Shields said those conversations are important, but understands that it can't be the only thing to move the needle. 

"You always have dialogue, and you always listen, but then you see what happened in Minneapolis and you're like, there's no amount of dialogue that will help any of us understand that," she said. "So, I think we have to understand there's greater issues than just putting on paper what changes are needed."

The Atlanta Police Department found themselves having to face that reality when, during Saturday night's protests, its own officers came under fire for the tasing and detainment of college students pulled from their car. After the video spread wildly online, Shields and Mayor Bottoms came to the decision to fire two of the officers involved, and place three more on desk duty. All those officers, and a sixth other one, were later charged by the Fulton County DA

11Alive's Brendan Keefe asked the chief what it was like to have to hold those officers, who had been with the department for a long while. She said it was "painful" but necessary.

"It's painful. But I also really need law enforcement - and just not APD - to understand that we cannot be engaging in the decision-making and always wanting to qualify it and justifying it, because as long as we're rationalizing and backing out of our behavior and creating a narrative around it to support it, we're never going to improve the relations with the black community," she explained. "That is just across the board."

Credit: WXIA

She added that she understands her officers are being put through a lot, but at the end of the day, they have to be held accountable. 

Shields closed by saying she recognizes that things will not improve unless there are changes made to many systems, but she said the burden does also fall on on policing. 

"Law enforcement has a huge role, but there's also a huge social-economic component to this, and as long as we continue to have such a gap between the haves and the have-nots, the lack of minorities in upper management positions, and more opportunities for African-Americans ... you could just go on and on about the disparities, and honestly those are the underlying drivers of much of this, but the police, they have a huge responsibility and they need to improve," she said. 

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