Ga. House speaker: State police may need to tackle Atlanta crime

Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) makes remarks after SB 202 passed the House Chambers on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. SB 202 passed the House Chambers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Georgia Speaker of the House Rep. David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) makes remarks after SB 202 passed the House Chambers on day 38 of the legislative session at the Georgia State Capitol Building in Atlanta, Thursday, March 25, 2021. SB 202 passed the House Chambers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

One of Georgia’s most powerful elected officials on Thursday said the city of Atlanta appears incapable of reining in crime on its own.

State House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, announced that a House committee plans hearings this summer to determine if state troopers should be brought in to help police Atlanta. The speaker cited the city’s increase in violent crime, including a devastating spike in homicides in 2020, when Atlanta saw more homicides than it had in two decades. Ralston also complained that numerous state lawmakers have had vehicles stolen and apartments burglarized.

“Atlanta has a crime problem and doesn’t seem to be able to bring it under control,” the speaker told reporters. “Sadly, the facts paint a chilling reality: not only is crime on the rise in every corner of this city, but we are losing the fight against crime.”

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, to whom Ralston sent a letter raising the specter of “state intervention,” didn’t agree with his assessment.

“Fighting this COVID crime wave is our top priority,” Bottoms, a Democrat, said in a statement. “Atlanta, as well as the rest of the state and country, has faced an historic increase in gun violence over the last year. If lawmakers have solutions to stemming access to guns by criminals and addressing gang violence, that have not already been enacted by the city, we welcome their input.”

Though most more serious crime fell in 2020, Atlanta saw 157 homicides, a 58% increase from 2019. More than 200 city officers quit in 2020, including many in protest to the downfall of Garrett Rolfe, the cop who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. Rolfe was fired and then charged with murder in the days after shooting Brooks, 27, a Black man whose death prompted weeks of protest and confrontations at the Wendy’s where he died.

State Attorney General Chris Carr applauded the speaker and echoed concerns about understaffing at the Atlanta Police Department.

“This is a quality of life issue for families, and it is also a threat to our economy,” said Carr, a Republican, blaming gangs for the uptick in violence. “Unchecked violent crime in our capital city can threaten our status as the No. 1 state in the nation in which to do business.”

Bottoms’ response to Ralston repeated a common refrain for the mayor: many major U.S. cities saw violent crime surge in 2020.

That is true but hasn’t spared the mayor from frequent criticism for the crime increase. Critics accuse her of mishandling the Brooks case and alienating officers.

“Even if we had officers on every single corner … homicides can happen,” Bottoms previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Wherever people would like to place blame, (that) doesn’t get us any closer to the solution.”

In recent days, the city has acknowledged continuing struggles, as well as lower-than-expected arrest figures in open cases. Officials developed a plan to stem the violence, which the mayor is expected to unveil in her upcoming state of the city address, interim police chief Rodney Bryant told Channel 2 Action News.

“Violent crime is up, but the strategies that we have in place will absolutely have an effect on it,” Bryant said.

The ACLU of Georgia questioned Ralston’s priorities, referring to a sweeping and controversial elections bill that the House passed Thursday.

“It is hard to view this as constructive at a time when the Legislature is engaged in voter suppression and laying the foundation for a takeover of county election boards,” said Andrea Young, the nonprofit’s executive director.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, who is running to unseat the mayor, said she wants to see what the committee finds but stressed she was against a state takeover of policing.

“It just speaks to the state of emergency we’re in,” Moore said of Ralston’s announcement.

Ralston previously has resisted fellow Republicans’ attempts to wrest control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport from the city. On crime, the attorney has sometimes joined Democrats on reform efforts, including in 2020 when he supported the state’s hate crime law after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger who was chased down and killed by a group of white men near Brunswick.

Back in 2019, Ralston’s drew bipartisan scorn after the AJC and Channel 2 Action News exposed his practice of using his position as a lawmaker to get yearslong delays in his clients’ criminal cases. One man accused of aggravated assault against his girlfriend said he paid Ralston $20,000 because he knew the speaker could stall the case.

Staff writer Mark Niesse contributed to this article.

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