By Christian Boone, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sept 2, 2019
One year ago, no one would have predicted that for the first time in years, Atlanta police would announce dramatic increases in applicants, new hires and re-hires.
Turns out, throwing money at a problem can sometimes produce the desired result.
Since Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ announcement last October that Atlanta Police Department officers would receive pay hikes of up to 30 percent, the city’s longtime struggle to recruit and retain cops suddenly subsided.
“It’s all thanks to the pay raise,” Deputy Police Chief Scott Kreher said. “For years we were finding ourselves behind the eight ball, but that’s no longer the case.”
Two thousand police officers, a pledge first made more than a quarter century ago by former Mayor Bill Campbell, no longer seems unrealistic. That benchmark was reached once before, in 2013, but a closer look at the numbers revealed troubling signs. Veteran officers were leaving APD at an alarming rate, replaced by recruits who demonstrated varying levels of commitment to the job.
As of last year, according to the Atlanta Police Foundation, 200 officers were leaving for every 100 officers hired annually. By last August, APD was down to 1,663 sworn officers. Nearly 400 authorized positions were unfilled.
The mayor’s decision to boost salaries followed a compensation study that found APD officers were paid well below the median rates of their law enforcement peers. The report, commissioned by the Atlanta Police Foundation, showed the city’s cops faced a lower floor, lower ceiling and a longer wait to advance in the ranks.
Bottoms earmarked $30 million aimed at making APD more competitive with departments in similarly sized urban centers. About 1,100 officers received the initial raises, leaving $20 million to be distributed over the next three years.
As of Aug. 20, APD has added 111 sworn officers to its ranks from the same date in 2018.
Kreher said he is most encouraged by the increase in retention. From 2002 to 2014, APD lost more than 1,800 officers. Morale sank even lower.
“Everyone’s trying to get out. If you’re a good officer, you’re leaving,” former Atlanta police officer Joe Layman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2015. Layman left APD earlier that year for a job with Aurora, Colorado, police. After 10 years in Atlanta, he was making just $44,000 — a few thousand dollars less than an APD rookie will make this year.
Back then, the department averaged 130 resignations annually. As of Aug. 20, Atlanta police reported 33 resignations, 25 fewer than last year.
“People are just happier,” veteran Lt. Steve Zygaj said earlier this year. “When you see someone at a strip club throwing $1,000 into the air — that’s how I feel every day.”
Atlanta Police Department by the numbers
Comparing Aug. 20, 2019, to same date in 2018
• Number of officers hired: 125 now; 71 then
• Number of officer applicants: 3,449 now; 2,050 then
• Re-hires (officers who left APD and returned): 13 now, with 8 more pending; 5 then
A native Atlantan, Boone joined the AJC staff in 2007. He quickly carved out a niche covering crime stories, assuming the public safety beat in 2014. He's covered some of the biggest trials this decade, from Hemy Neuman to Ross Harris to Chip Olsen, the latter of which was featured on Season 7 of the AJC's award-winning "Breakdown" podcast.