Atlanta is engaged in a very public argument about how to fight rising crime. The mayor’s approach is to barricade the doors to the public and deliberate in secret.
The “Anti-Violence Advisory Council” named last week by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has been structured to evade Georgia’s strict Open Meetings Act rules for public observation. The only people who heard Bottoms address the 13-person working group on Wednesday were hand-picked members and city staff.
Bottoms has relied on similar working groups in the past, like one convened in the wake of protests last summer. Some of the recommendations of that group later became city policy. Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is the highest profile member of the group, which also includes UPS CEO Carol Tomé, a juvenile judge, a retired police chief, city council members, and community activists.
Members speaking about Wednesday’s meeting said on background that the mayor addressed the group briefly, then the group dove into a discussion of the problem and an overview of crime statistics led by the city’s police chief, Rodney Bryant. An intense question-and-answer session followed with a focus on youth crime and gang crime.
Bottoms announced that she would not be running for reelection earlier this month, an astonishing concession widely attributed to the challenge of running during a record-setting crime wave. Homicides have increased 85 percent year over year as of two weeks ago: 52 deaths since the start of the year, with six killings since Friday alone. Violence has been particularly lethal; aggravated assaults have also increased, but only by about 25 percent, while gun violence has increased more than 50 percent.
State government has begun to intervene. At the end of the legislative session two months ago, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston announced a study committee on Atlanta crime, holding out the possibility that the state police would take over the city’s public safety. The legislature also passed legislation prohibiting large municipalities — looking at you, Atlanta — from defunding the police by capping reductions in police spending to a maximum of 5 percent per year. Of late, the Georgia State Patrol has been working with the Atlanta Police Department and others to crack down on street racing, reversing city policies against car chases in the process. Three people have been killed while police chased suspects since then. None of the three were drivers of vehicles being chased.
The city has said it plans to fight rising crime with a mix of policies, issuing a crackdown on nuisance properties, gangs, and street racing, as well as expanding surveillance technology. The city announced it would start a trial of ShotSpotter technology, which locates gunfire acoustically. The city also plans to spend millions to build a new police training academy.
Bottoms’s working group provides the political benefit of shifting responsibility for decisions to a council of largely unelected, politically unaccountable outsiders.
Any changes to public safety policies vibrate with political tension. There’s value in convening the political equivalent of a grand jury to examine a public problem — in fact, actual grand juries have been used in just that way to positive effect across Georgia over the years. Bottoms’s working group also provides the political benefit of shifting responsibility for decisions to a council of largely unelected, politically unaccountable outsiders. Bottoms will be able to say that she followed its policy recommendations, absolving herself of criticism if they come at the expense of her political allies.
Progressive activists who helped elect Bottoms over Mary Norwood — a relatively conservative former city council member from Atlanta’s wealthy Buckhead neighborhood — have won criminal justice reforms like the end of cash bail for minor offenses, the establishment of a pre-arrest diversion initiative, and the implementation of body-worn cameras and use-of-force protocols. They’ve expected even more, like the permanent closure of Atlanta’s mostly empty municipal jail, to be reimagined as a community center.
They fear that demagogues will hang rising crime numbers on these reforms and not on the underlying conditions in the city.
Atlanta is the most economically unequal city in America, according to one Bloomberg analysis, with rising rents outstripping incomes even before the pandemic. Housing instability can contribute to violence. The killing of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer amid the broader protests against police brutality — and the subsequent sickout by cops over the arrest of officer Garrett Rolfe on a murder charge — deeply damaged the department’s relatively strong relationship with the public.
Atlanta is also a center for the music industry, which may be part of the problem. While most of America’s nightlife shut down during the pandemic, Atlanta’s clubs largely remained open, due in part to the permissive policies of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp. Downtown parking lots are filled with out-of-state cars, while the nightclubs have often been the scene of violence.
Combine this with equally permissive gun laws and a related gang problem. The Fulton County district attorney earlier this month uncorked a massive anti-racketeering indictment against rapper YFN Lucci and 11 others. The RICO indictment described YFN Lucci, whose given name is Rayshawn Bennett, as a Bloods gang leader and argued that Atlanta is the battlefield for a rap gang war with a Rollin’ 60s Crip set indirectly linked to massively popular rappers Young Thug and Gunna.
The policy prescription for these problems, if they are to be solved and not simply acted upon, is likely to be complex and require a long-term focus. But Bottoms charged the working group to make recommendations within 30 to 45 days, which reflects the political urgency of the moment.