After another tragic week, Atlanta can no longer ignore the increasing crime that has unfortunately become the norm. According to a recent Atlanta Police Department report, year to date, murders have increased by a whopping 60 percent, rapes by 47 percent, aggravated assault by 39 percent and auto theft by 30 percent.
Public safety in Atlanta has deteriorated so much that it has even grabbed the General Assembly’s attention. Indeed, in a March 25 letter to Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms, Speaker of the House David Ralston (R-7) highlighted the dramatic rise in crime. He wrote, “homicides surged 58 percent in 2020,” and there is an “alarming increase in [the] reports of auto theft, auto break-ins and other property crimes.” He closed by announcing his intention to hold hearings on the matter and invited the Mayor’s office to participate.
Crime rates haven’t improved much—if any—since the Speaker’s announcement, and last week, Mayor Bottoms held a press conference following a deadly and heart-wrenching spate of crimes. Flanked by ranking police officials, she and her colleagues fielded some difficult questions about the rash of crimes and, at times, delivered some productive responses. However, instead of keeping their message straightforward and targeted, there was plenty of buck passing. But Georgians care little about hearing contrived excuses; they’d rather city officials simply fix the problem.
While Police Chief Rodney Bryant acknowledged the severity of the situation in the press conference, he simultaneously downplayed it. In fact, he blamed some of the “surge” on misleading statistics. He claimed that while crimes appear to have increased on paper, much of it is only a mirage brought on by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He asserted that crime plummeted during the shutdown, but now that restrictions have been lifted, people are reverting to their old ways, including breaking the law. The subsequent increase in crime appears statistically significant, but it is largely consistent with prior crime-rates, he claimed.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be entirely accurate. For one, there was never an extended, mandatory and comprehensive shutdown in Georgia to fully account for this. Second, by his own admission, 2020 murder rates were far higher than homicide rates in 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak—meaning this has been a growing problem that, in many ways, cannot be simply attributed on skewed statistics.
During the press conference, Mayor Bottoms also spoke, and cast some blame on Georgia’s supposed “lax” gun laws, which falls under the state legislature’s purview, as a major contributing factor of the crime wave. She even made some vague references to assault weapons—seemingly implying that they’ve played a considerable role in recent violence.
Yet these arguments weren’t particularly well-received. In fact, Governor Brian Kemp responded to her statements on guns: “Well, that’s ridiculous because that has nothing to do with the problems we’ve been seeing.” While firearms are sometimes misused and can certainly be deadly, Governor Kemp pointed out that there haven’t been any recent substantive gun law reforms to account for the sudden and dramatic uptick in crime. What’s more, when pressed to answer how many recent incidents involved an assault weapon, none of the city officials at the press conference could readily give an answer.
Interestingly, despite the increase in crime, arrests are down some 43 percent year to date, and the police department has been hemorrhaging officers. According to a December 2020 report from 11 Alive News, “there are 1,603 officers currently on the force, about 400 short of its "authorized strength" of 2,046 total officers.” Over the course of 2020, more than 200 Atlanta Police Officers either quit, retired, or were terminated—some probably deservedly.
The dip in arrests and police strength, which may be a considerable factor in the wave, has frequently been attributed to low morale and even an outbreak of the “blue flu” in which police officers call in sick in protest of some perceived provocation. Yet Chief Bryant has since assured Atlantans that morale has “stabilized”—although that is up for debate. Nevertheless, crime remains too high.
During the press conference, Mayor Bottoms and Chief Bryant spent considerable time discussing their intention to restructure police units, redeploy them, increase police officer numbers and create working groups to determine next steps. These sound like perfectly reasonable moves—provided that they hire officers of good moral character and continue to advocate commonsense criminal justice reforms.
Had these plans been the extent of the press conference, more people might have sympathized with Mayor Bottoms and Chief Bryant, but they tried to share the blame. In the end, city officials need to face up to the facts, stop evading accountability, and focus on what they can control. After all, Georgians are more concerned about identifying and fixing the core problems than hearing excuses. When the legislature holds hearings on the matter, I bet lawmakers will feel the same.
Marc Hyden is the director of state government affairs at a free market think tank, and he is a long-time Georgia resident. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.