From Downtown Atlanta, a room with a view (of the Future of Policing)

Two years ago, a group of planners devoted to “promoting walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development, sustainable communities and healthier living conditions” held their annual meeting in downtown Atlanta. This is a bit like a group of foodies discussing El Bulli while sharing a triple Whopper with cheese value meal.

The New Urbanists were quick with their jeers. James Howard Kuntsler was still speeding away in his taxi when he posted this photo essay The Horror of Downtown Atlanta. The author of The Geography of Nowhere knows a scary landscape when he sees one.

Of the (many) targets available to the (many) critics of downtown Atlanta, the favorite is the network of skywalks, which connect a total of 18 free-standing buildings across ten blocks: hi-rise luxury hotels, skyscrapers, a mall, and the massive AmericasMart complex.

Some of the skywalks from the outside:

The skywalks from the inside:

The Horror.

But do these skywalks make downtown Atlanta horrible, as charged by Kuntsler? It’s true that they remove people from the streets, killing off small businesses that rely on pedestrian traffic.

It’s also true that for sheer ugliness, it’s hard to beat the outside view of a skywalk:

By contrast, the inside space is gorgeous:

So it’s not just the ugliness of skywalks – it’s the disparity between inside and out, an aesthetic (and economic) gap that’s offensive to our basic sense of fairness.

Ugly, yes. Grossly unfair, yes. But horror?

Well, yes. What bumps downtown Atlanta’s network of skywalks up from creepy to horrible is what it suggests about the future of policing.

Policing Downtown Atlanta  

During the 15 years I spent working in downtown Atlanta, I had a front row seat to the passion play that’s mounted every few years over the need to “do something” about homeless people and panhandlers.  Policing downtown Atlanta has, by and large, been about mounting whatever play acting is helpful to making office workers and tourists feel safe.

The “something” that is done is usually more police presence and a new city ordinance.  There are plenty of police to choose from – there are at least nine police departments with arrest powers in downtown Atlanta and a host of private security officers, including the seventy-odd members of the Ambassador Force in their jaunty white pith helmets.

And when it comes to city ordinances designed to move visibly poor people out of sight, Atlanta has not skimped. The city already has prohibitions against begging, loitering, lying down, or “urban camping.” In this latest round, Councilman Michael J. Bond has introduced an ordinance that mandates 6 months in jail after a third conviction for “aggressive panhandling.” (What makes it “aggressive” is asking for money using spoken words rather than a sign.)

These Old Faithful battles over policing downtown Atlanta are public, heartfelt, and contentious. On one side, the business interests line up behind Central Atlanta Progress. On the other are advocates for the homeless and downtrodden. Business usually wins.

Yet, the reappearance every few years of a demand to “do something” about safety downtown suggests that this traditional policing strategy of more officers + new ordinances is not terribly successful.  Office workers and tourists do not feel safe. It’s unclear whether any level of police presence will make them feel safe.

Insider-Outsider Selective Policing.

If the goal is to make office workers and tourists feel safe, there is a policing strategy that has succeeded in downtown Atlanta.  It’s a strategy that has done its work frighteningly well, quietly and without the public battles over each new anti-homeless ordinance. Understanding it may give us some insight into the future of policing.

The area where this kind of policing has worked is the ten blocks of buildings connected by skywalks sit on the northern edge of downtown Atlanta.  Almost all the buildings in these ten interconnected blocks were designed by John Portman, an architect best known for his soaring hotel atriums.  Interior space is Portman’s specialty, and as he built in downtown Atlanta, he connected one spectacular interior space to another through skywalks.  See pics above.

You can spend weeks – months? years? – inside the cluster of Portman buildings without ever setting foot on the streets outside. You can go to work in the SunTrust tower or Peachtree Center, eat a Bone-in Kansas City Strip, drink a Mai Tai or a Tiki Bowl at Trader Vic’s, sleep on 300 thread count Egyptian sateen cotton sheets, lift weights, watch movies, swim, or play tennis. If you’re a cardiologist or a marketing professional or a pharmaceutical company executive, there was a conference for you at one of the conference centers insides the complex this week.  If you’re a wholesale buyer or seller of plastic toys, you’re a couple of skyways away from the center of your universe, AmericasMart.

And the number of police inside these acres upon acres of interior space? Not a one.

In the ten hours I recently spent walking back, forth, across, up, down, and through these ten connected blocks, I did not see a single sworn police officer. There were private security officers watching the entrances and monitoring surveillance cameras.  But most important, there was an architecture designed to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out.

The policing that happens in the Portman cluster draws a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders. Insiders have it great – they’re treated with respect and assumed to be nonthreatening.

The outsiders, not so much. They get all the old-style policing, featuring lots of cops and pandhandling/loitering/sleeping/urban camping ordinances. And police dogs (here, on John Portman Ave.):

In some ways, there’s nothing new about this kind of insider-outsider policing. It’s the premise of gated communities.  It’s also the kind of selective policing that has driven the war on drugs, where poor neighborhoods of color are swamped with police while middle class white people smoke pot and pop pills unmolested.

The quiet success of policing the Portman cluster, though, suggests a way for us to better understand the kind of silent, ubiquitous policing that has developed post-9/11.

The Future of Policing

The primary challenge in downtown Atlanta, remember, has been to make office workers and tourists feel safe. The skywalk-connected Portman buildings have done this by keeping insiders in and outsiders out of an orderly, safe-feeling interior space. There are rules about who belongs inside and who stays outside – how you’re dressed, what ID you show at various entry points, who you’re with.

Put a different way, the skywalks that tie together the Portman cluster facilitate a form of selective policing that is more sophisticated than raw racial profiling. While architecture is the technology of insider-outsider policing in downtown Atlanta, we recognize as well the technology of distinguishing between insiders and outsiders in things like the TSA’s PreCheck program and the increasing use of criminal background checks.

Another architect, the visionary Paoli Soleri, invented the study of arcology, a view of architecture as a physical manifestation of human ecology. His utopian Arcosanti is so much more elegant and human than anything Portman has ever built. Soleri believed our culture and morality are revealed through the structures of our cities.  In turn, the structures of our cities – especially urban centers – influence our culture and morality.

Soleri’s judgement of Portman would be damning. An architecture that’s designed to separate people not only reveals, but encourages, the desires of insiders to label others as outsiders and save all the goodies (including the goody of not being heavily policed) for themselves. If the Portman complex is telling us something about the future of policing in the U.S., it seems that what mass incarceration, Islamaphobia and anti-immigrant sentiment has created is a group of outsiders made up of the 2.5 million Muslims, 11 million undocumented immigrants, and 65 million people in the U.S. with criminal records.

How does the creation of this group as outsiders change the way we are policed in this dystopia? How does it affect the way the insiders are policed?  The outsiders? What is the role of databases and other technologies in creating and maintaining this distinction between insiders and outsiders?

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One thought on “From Downtown Atlanta, a room with a view (of the Future of Policing)

  1. I got my own taste of the future of policing after twice getting criminal trespass warnings from the police while taking pictures in public spaces.

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