Mar 4, 2024 - History

Atlanta's top cop could mingle with rock stars and close cases

A young man with curly hair wearing a suit posed and smiles with an older man in a bow-tie tuxedo on the red carpet at an event

Eldrin Bell (right) with his son, American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Atlanta will never see another police chief, politician, or person like Eldrin Bell.

Why it matters: In 1990, then Mayor Maynard Jackson named Bell — a career cop whose charisma, panache and occasional brushes with controversy won your admiration or drove you crazy — as Atlanta's police chief.

Driving the news: Atlanta political and civic leaders are scheduled to honor Bell, who's now in his late 80s, Monday morning at City Hall.

Catch up quick: Bell joined the APD as a patrolman in 1961, and over a 33-year career built a reputation as a "cop's cop" who commandeered officers during 1980s missing children murders and the Rodney King uprisings and the crack epidemic the following decade.

  • In a single day, Lou Arcangeli, a retired APD officer who served under Bell from 1974 until the chief retired in 1994, told Axios that Bell could comfort the mother of a homicide victim, hear out activist Hosea Williams, and hold court with Buckhead bigwigs.
  • "If I had to use a word to describe him it would be 'everywhere,'" Arcangeli said. "He was comfortable in every aspect of Atlanta life."

Intrigue: Bell dodged accusations that he protected gambling at a local fairground where he directed security for a side job and attended a party later revealed to be an FBI sting, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was cleared in all cases.

  • Bell "has led a flamboyant lifestyle that has often gotten him into hot water," Atlanta Magazine wrote in 2011. "But he has always managed to escape getting burned."

Reality check: Atlanta loved the blue-eyed native son. Sixty-two percent of residents approved his leadership of the APD, according to a May 1993 Atlanta Journal poll. After leaving the APD, Black political leaders recruited Bell to run for Fulton County chairman.

  • Bell, whose son Justin Guarini made runner-up in American Idol's first season, dropped out of the race but not politics, going on to serve as Clayton County's first African American chairman.
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