Ensuring that we live in safer neighborhoods is one of my top campaign priorities.
Just eight years ago, the City of Atlanta served as an example of effective crime reduction. Between 2001 and 2009, Atlanta’s crime rate fell by 40 percent. This change was particularly notable with violent crime, as homicides fell 57 percent and reported rapes fell 72 percent. Violent crime overall fell by 55 percent. City leaders had much to celebrate, especially considering that those figures far exceeded national trends (violent crime fell only 27 percent in large cities across the country).
Though Atlanta enjoyed a significant decline in crime rates for that period, crime has spiked in recent years. Atlanta continues to routinely appear in top “murder capital” listings, ranking at number 18 as recently as 2015. To make matters worse, much of this is concentrated in some of our most economically vulnerable communities.
While crime directly impacts our ability to have a positive quality of life in our communities, the perception of crime has a lasting effect as well. In 2011, the Atlanta Police Foundation conducted a survey that found the following: 34 percent of respondents thought crime rates were trending upwards within their neighborhoods despite statistics indicating otherwise; 59 percent of respondents felt safe in their neighborhoods; roughly half of respondents thought their car was at risk of getting stolen; and 43 percent of Atlantans thought they were at risk of getting mugged. Furthermore, only 56 percent of respondents thought the Atlanta police were doing a good job.
That perception has led to lifestyle decisions that influence whether consumers invest in communities that are deemed unsafe and further aggravate concerns about personal welfare. The inability to address crime, both real and imagined, can adversely disrupt economic activity, to the detriment of community members and local businesses. Not only does crime affect a business owner’s customer base and bottom line, but it also makes the recruitment of employees extremely difficult.
The perception gap has worsened in the wake of widespread awareness of police misconduct in communities across the country. According to one high-ranking Atlanta police official, the malfeasance that occurs among smaller police departments–police departments that employ 10 to 30 officers, and with the clear exception of Baltimore, Chicago and New York–shaped the narrative of the police brutality discussion. This perception forced larger departments like Atlanta’s to become more accountable to the people, particularly in the wake of protests that emerged from increased public awareness about police misconduct.
In order to combat these issues, Atlanta Police Department has invested in programs geared towards technological innovation, youth mentorship, and community inclusion. Unfortunately, our policies don’t work in the best interests of all of our community members, and many of Atlanta’s residents don’t feel like our police officers have their best interests in mind. Making the situation worse, efforts to improve police-community relations have been negatively affected by low police morale and high attrition rates. How can we build strong, long-lasting relationships when APD loses roughly 7% of its force each year?
Real or perceived, how we address crime and public safety affects the livelihoods of all Atlantans. Addressing this issue in a comprehensive, holistic manner would work not only to ensure that our communities are safer, but also to positively shape the effects of economic development investments in our communities.
Here’s how we can make our communities safer:
- Invest in wraparound services centered on social work, community organizing, and economic development which disincentivizes risky behavior and provides stability and opportunities for neighborhood youth.
- Strengthen community policing by working to change the culture of policing as it pertains to foot patrols. Security measures are much more effective when those charged with maintaining order are seen, heard, and are available and accessible to the recipients of their services.
- Aggressively address issues related to police retention and morale. Low pay and minimal benefits implies police officers are undervalued and encourages our best and brightest to leave for neighboring jurisdictions.
- Invest in rigorous and sustained professional development and training opportunities to improve police-community interactions, ensure the deescalation of conflicts, and promote better customer service.
- Create pathways for homeownership for police officers by offering bonuses and incentives to encourage officers to live in our communities.
- Invest in tools and technologies to make our police force more efficient and effective in their work.
- Encourage partnerships with existing community institutions to ensure that ongoing programming is enhanced rather than replaced.
It’s one thing for Atlanta’s police to be at the forefront of innovation with regards to integration of technology, community relationship-building tactics and strategies, and officer diversity; but it must be difficult to sustain these relationships if veteran officers quickly jump ship to neighboring communities that offer better pay and benefits with greater safety. I learned many of these lessons firsthand while serving as an Army officer through two overseas tours. Our military members face similar challenges at the end of each year-long deployment: a rotation’s worth of experiences and relationship-building are thrown out the door as the people with the most intimate knowledge of a community are replaced by new units with new leaders and new sets of priorities.
Though the relationship between the APD and Atlanta’s citizens isn’t completely analogous to that of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the principle largely remains the same. The best way to address this perception issue is to ensure that police are actively seen in the streets, interacting with local citizens. Officers need to focus their time and energy by walking through communities, not behind the wheel of a police cruiser.
Our citizens must know our police officers if we are to trust them and respect their judgement. And we can’t know our police officers if they continue to leave the city at such a high rate. However, this cuts both ways. Atlanta’s citizen review process must be strengthened, especially if we seek to ensure our officers are well-integrated into our communities. If elected, I will work to:
- Work with police leadership to address discipline issues, ensuring that the existing citizen review process remains independent, engaged, and empowered to safeguard opportunities for redress in instances of police malfeasance.
- Ensure APD remains invested in technologies like body cameras and dashboard cameras and establishes policies and training to govern their use.
- Emphasize citizens’ right to record police interactions.
- Decriminalize nonviolent offenses, helping to reduce instances of confrontational police-citizen interactions.
The City of Atlanta has a vested interest in improving the relationship between its citizens and its police force, especially considering that interactions between the two are rare and usually occur in the context of confrontation or duress or in damning news stories.
Invest more. Expect more.