After Buckhead cityhood defeat, ‘pressure still remains’ on Andre Dickens

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant applaud speakers at the ribbon cutting for a new apartment complex for Atlanta Police recruits on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens and Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant applaud speakers at the ribbon cutting for a new apartment complex for Atlanta Police recruits on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

State leaders eyeing new mayor’s crime plan

When House Speaker David Ralston told reporters this month that the push for Buckhead cityhood would not move forward this year, he added one caveat: “The problem of how we got here is not solved.”

He was referring, of course, to crime and public safety in the capital city, adding that he wants to see “some forceful and vigorous action on the part of the city.”

The pronouncement from Ralston and Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan — that Mayor Andre Dickens should be given a chance to implement his violence reduction plan before considering the creation of “Buckhead City” — was a huge victory for the new mayor, and a reflection of his efforts to quickly build relationships with the Republican state leaders.

ExploreHow Atlanta ducked a Buckhead divorce

But with the secession push no longer an immediate threat for the city, it also puts a new kind of pressure on Dickens to hire more police officers, reduce high homicide numbers and prove it was wise for the state to give him a year to find his footing.

“We’ll be back next year if things haven’t changed a lot,” Ralston said.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dickens said the movement’s swift demise this year gives him more time to focus on day-to-day governing duties, though he emphasized he is still focused on the needs of Buckhead and keeping an eye on the lingering cityhood discussions.

“This gives me the ability to go further versus kind of being micro-focused,” said Dickens, who said he wasn’t expecting Ralston’s Feb. 11 announcement that effectively killed the proposal for this legislative cycle.

So far this year, homicides and rapes are up citywide compared to the first six weeks of 2021, while police department data show declines in other crimes, including aggravated assault, robbery, and car theft. (In Buckhead specifically, homicides have not seen an uptick, and overall property crime is down 33% compared to this time last year.)

The mayor said he is confident the department will be able to increase its ranks, pointing to recent APD data showing nearly 300 people have completed applications to be an Atlanta police officer, compared to just 65 at this time last year. Dickens set a goal of hiring 250 officers during his first year in office.

“People are signing up for that, saying they know they have a mayor that will have their back, that is interested in making sure we reduce crime,” he said.

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the unveiling of the location for a new mini-precinct for Atlanta police on Thursday, January 13, 2022. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the unveiling of the location for a new mini-precinct for Atlanta police on Thursday, January 13, 2022. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks at the unveiling of the location for a new mini-precinct for Atlanta police on Thursday, January 13, 2022. (Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Dickens said he also plans to unveil a proposal soon to put more lights and cameras around entertainment districts and nightlife establishments, which have been the scene of multiple shootings this year. Officials are also installing new streetlights citywide, with a goal of adding 10,000.

“I just want to make it clear that I haven’t let my hair down,” Dickens said. “I’m still very much focused on all of the needs of the city, and Buckhead. I want to do so much for this city in the first year that this isn’t even a discussion when the general assembly gets back in next year.”

Still, the charge of reducing crime is a tall order for Dickens, who ascended to the mayor’s office as the police force remained several hundred officers short of the department’s longstanding goal of 2,000. Homicides in Atlanta were higher in 2021 than they had been in over two decades.

“This idea that mayors are able to halt crime is rather ridiculous, given that mayors have very little influence over the mechanisms that cause crime in the first place,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

Dickens acknowledged the need for collaboration, saying he plans to work with the Fulton County district attorney’s office and local nonprofits to reduce court backlogs and address the root causes of crime.

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Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, walks to the podium before a news conference held days after state Republican leaders effectively killed the proposal for this legislative session. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, walks to the podium before a news conference held days after state Republican leaders effectively killed the proposal for this legislative session. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Bill White, chairman and CEO of the Buckhead City Committee, walks to the podium before a news conference held days after state Republican leaders effectively killed the proposal for this legislative session. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

If Gov. Brian Kemp were to sign a bill allowing Buckhead residents to vote on cityhood, the issue would have dominated Dickens’ first year in office as he and his allies worked to prevent the high-profile referendum from passing.

Instead, Dickens said, he now has time to meet more employees, visit the city’s facilities and focus on other day-to-day governing issues. Last week, for example, he visited two fire stations and spoke to the firefighters about their needs.

While cities and towns across Georgia have seen a rise in violent crime since the start of the pandemic, Republicans running for statewide office this year are likely to seize on crime in Atlanta as a campaign issue, putting more of a spotlight on Dickens.

Kemp, who stayed neutral on the cityhood issue, told the conservative outlet Breitbart over the weekend that Dickens “needs to feel the pressure” on the crime issue. His opponent in the Republican primary for governor, former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, has also criticized Dickens and Kemp over crime, and publicly backed Buckhead cityhood.

ExploreBuckhead cityhood supporters vow to continue fight, but future is uncertain

Buckhead cityhood supporters, meanwhile, have vowed to continue their fight to break off from the city, and they are likely to take advantage of chances to criticize Dickens, especially on issues of crime. At a press conference last week, Buckhead City Committee CEO Bill White claimed Dickens “does not have the political will to fix crime.”

“The pressure still remains on Mayor Dickens,” Owens, the Emory professor, said. “There’s no incentive for the Buckhead movement to suddenly fold. There’s no incentive at all for them to go away and stop being bombastic and stop trying to beat up on the mayor.”