Atlanta almost withheld $73M in police funding last year. What’s changed since then?

Caption
Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd speaks at the Atlanta Police Training Academy, housed in a former elementary school, before touring to see the disrepair at the facility. Sheperd supported increased funding for police in this year's city budget and is pushing for the creation of a new public safety training facility. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Amid rise in crime, city boosts police funding despite push to defund department

One year ago this month, protests filled the city’s streets daily after the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and, less than three weeks later, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. Pushing for changes to Atlanta’s police budget, over a thousand residents sent comments into the City Council — so many that the recordings had to be played over two days.

Facing a June 30 deadline to pass the budget, the City Council discussed temporarily withholding $73 million of the Atlanta Police Department’s budget while the city considered changes to the way it polices. The effort failed on an 8-7 vote.

This year, the day the council voted on the budget, there were less than two hours of comments from the public. The council passed the budget unanimously, and rather than withholding funding from police, the city increased the department’s budget by 7% to over $230 million, a $15 million increase that represented the biggest boost awarded to any department.

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The discussions at City Hall over this year’s budget, which followed a citywide rise in violent crime, highlight how the discourse over policing has shifted in the last year, among elected officials and some members of the public.

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Council members, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and other supporters of the budget say supporting the police department with new dollars and pay raises is crucial amid the rise in crime that is set to play a significant role in the city’s upcoming elections. But many local activists are frustrated that a year after calls to reimagine public safety captured the nation’s attention, the city isn’t doing more to reach that goal.

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This time last year, “there was definitely a glimmer of hope in that moment that, wow, they really are listening. That moment just kind of went away,” said Kelsea Bond, an organizer for Defund APD, Refund Communities.

The organization was formed in the wake of last summer’s protests, arguing that policing harms and criminalizes marginalized communities, perpetuates cycles of poverty and should eventually be abolished. The police department’s large budget, the group says, would be better spent on community-based social programs.

The organization led a coalition of over a dozen activist groups in sending a list of demands to the Atlanta City Council this month focused on APD funding. Among the demands: Reduce Atlanta’s police budget by 30% and “refund communities” by expanding the budgets for youth and family services and programs designed to help non-violent offenders and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

But Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said the majority of residents in her predominantly Black southside district want more police presence to tackle crime.

“A massive amount, 75%, 80% of the people are saying, ‘Are you crazy? Why would we defund the police?’” Sheperd said Thursday while touring the city’s police academy, located in an old elementary school. Sheperd recently introduced an ordinance that would pave the way for the construction of a new public safety training center at the old Atlanta prison farm in DeKalb County, a proposal opposed by activists.

The city’s recent budget vote came less than five months out from the Nov. 2 city election, in which every council seat will be on the ballot. In the closely watched mayoral race, nearly all of the candidates are running campaigns focused on reducing crime, supporting the police department and beefing up recruitment.

City officials say the new money in the budget will fund 250 vacant officer positions, retention bonuses and gradual pay increases that Bottoms first instituted in 2018.

Caption
Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd tours the Atlanta Police Training Academy on Thursday, June 17, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Caption
Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd tours the Atlanta Police Training Academy on Thursday, June 17, 2020. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“It’s no secret that it’s an all-hands-on-deck approach right now. With addressing crime, the most important thing we have to do as a city ... is support the police officers right now,” said Dave Wilkinson, the president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation. “It starts with more police officers. Secondly, more cameras and more technology.”

Sequestering the $73 million, a third of the police’s budget, would not have “defunded” the police department, said Councilwoman Jennifer Ide, who chairs the City Council’s finance committee and supported the amendment to withhold some of the police dollars last year.

Ide said the move would have given Bottoms’ administration until the end of 2020 to consider whether any reforms needed to be made to policing in Atlanta.

“All of a sudden, I was hearing from hundreds of people. ... I was really hearing from people who lived in my district” who wanted the city to reallocate police funding, Ide said. “As painful as last year was, it started the discussion. It started the work. There wasn’t a need to use the budget process to make sure those conversations were happening.”

She pointed to Bottoms’ police use-of-force council, which makes recommendations for police reforms, and the expansion of the Policing Alternatives and Diversion program in the last 12 months. The PAD program offers help and social services to people who might otherwise be arrested for minor, nonviolent crimes.

Councilman Antonio Brown, who helped lead the push to withhold some of the police funding last year and is now running for mayor, sponsored a resolution earlier this year that will study the creation of a possible new city department that would “reimagine” public safety in Atlanta.

But to community organizers, the last year has been “pretty grim,” Bond said, especially the debate over closing the mostly empty Atlanta City Detention Center. While Bottoms is pushing for the closure of the jail, the City Council has pushed back.

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“We’ve been calling all year and we feel like we haven’t been heard,” said Bond, whose group has been canvassing neighborhoods to gather community support.

The change in the discourse in Atlanta reflects a pattern that has played out in large cities across the country. Amid a rise in violent crime nationwide, municipalities have largely increased police funding in the last year, including in several cities that cut police funding last year or took action toward doing so, like Los Angeles and Oakland, California.

Wilkinson attributed the debate last summer to the “politically charged moment,” and said he is confident the mayor and council will continue putting funds behind the police department. He also heralded the police foundation’s At-Promise centers, which offer programming and education to youth and aims to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism.

“It is so incredibly symbolic right now that the mayor and City Council ... have gotten solidly behind our police department,” he said.


BY THE NUMBERS:

$709 million: The size of the city of Atlanta’s general budget for FY 2022

$230 million: Amount allocated to the Atlanta Police Department

7%: Increase from last year’s police budget

250: Number of vacant officer positions funded by the new budget

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