Atlanta’s candidates for mayor join law enforcement leaders at crime forum

210916-Atlanta-Atlanta mayoral candidates speak at a public safety forum Thursday evening, Sept. 16, 2021 in Downtown Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

210916-Atlanta-Atlanta mayoral candidates speak at a public safety forum Thursday evening, Sept. 16, 2021 in Downtown Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Six of Atlanta’s candidates for mayor participated in a two-hour “Crime Forum” with law enforcement leaders Thursday night.

Crime is the central issue in the race for mayor, and a recent AJC poll found it is the top issue of concern among people registered to vote in this year’s race.

Condace Pressley, WSB’s Community and Public Affairs director, asked the candidates how they would address violent crime. She also asked about public safety investments, officer morale, reform, and the restoration of the relationship between police and the community.

The candidates all said Atlanta needs to work with every jurisdiction of the criminal justice system to confront crime. They said non-emergency personnel can address mental health concerns and substance abuse issues instead of the police. They all promised to hire more officers and to invest in services for young people. They also said officers require mayoral support and “due process” amid concerns about officer conduct.

“The community wants to feel safe on all sides,” Councilman Andre Dickens said. “They want to make sure they’re safe … from violent offenders, and also from any police officer that may experience a day where they want to have excessive use of force.”

Dickens and nine other councilmembers voted for a new public safety training center on forested land to boost morale and to enforce racial sensitivity and de-escalation tactics. He wants 250 new officers to target gangs and gun trafficking.

Attorney Sharon Gay said Atlanta needs a new, smarter approach to hiring and training officers. She wants to hire someone whose “sole job” is devoted to public safety in partnership with the police and other agencies.

Kenny Hill said the city needs to invest in officer retention and hiring, as well as remodeling their precincts. He also wants to require officers to mentor students so the gangs don’t have that opportunity.

City Council President Felicia Moore said officers in administrative roles will work the streets for a few hours to give patrol officers time to fight crime. She promised to incentivize the rehiring of officers who want to return. She also emphasized neighborhood watch programs, updates to public safety technology, and the need to reform “the culture of policing.”

But former Mayor Kasim Reed, who wants 750 more officers, said crime will drop in 180 days if officers aren’t “thrown under the bus” when “they make a mistake.” He nonetheless touted how his previous administration held officers accountable by implementing body-worn cameras and by ending the “very aggressive” Red Dog unit.

“Acknowledge that the relationship was torn and get at repairing it with fresh leadership that doesn’t have the baggage of that situation,” Reed said in reference to last year’s unrest and drop in police morale. Reed and Dickens both pledged to create more housing for officers.

Walter Reeves said he wants police officers to receive training from federal and international law enforcement programs. Reeves was the only candidate who didn’t address the importance of upholding punishment for code enforcement violations.

Prior to the candidate forum, Pressley moderated a panel featuring Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant, Fulton County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Antonio Johnson, Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis, GBI Director Vic Reynolds, and Chris Hacker, special agent of FBI Atlanta.

“Criminal street gangs is an issue in the entire state,” Reynolds said. Hacker agreed and urged the leaders “to target the drivers of violence” amid efforts to issue federal charges.

Johnson said “we need a new jail” to house gang members. Willis agreed and said “if we are able to combat gang violence, we are going to be able to see crime decreases dramatically.” Bryant said the city is working with the police foundation to develop housing for new officers.

The event had more than 200 attendees in person and virtually via the police foundation’s Facebook page.