The two candidates sound remarkably similar when they talk about public safety on the campaign trail. Both are pitching comprehensive approaches that involve hiring more police officers, boosting their training and tackling problems many of their supporters say are intertwined with crime: poverty, homelessness and mental illness.
At the same time, Dickens and Moore have staked out sharply different positions on a few key issues. Among them is the fate of Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant and the future of the city’s detention center.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms named Bryant the city’s interim chief in June of last year. A veteran of the Atlanta Police Department, Bryant came out of retirement to accept the job during a particularly challenging time. Six Atlanta police officers had just been indicted with various offenses after arresting and tasing two unarmed college students amid protests against police brutality.
Days later, Erika Shields stepped down as chief, following the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Peoplestown. Brooks scuffled with officers, struck one, grabbed that officer’s taser and fired it at another officer before he was shot. His killing caused widespread unrest. The officer who shot Brooks was fired and charged with murder. Morale plummeted among city police officers.
In May of this year, Bottoms named Bryant the permanent police chief, saying she hoped the decision would silence critics who have contended the city has suffered without permanent leadership of a department that has struggled to recruit and retain officers.
Moore told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she would immediately name an interim chief to replace Bryant and begin a national search for a permanent hire.
“I just want a chief that shares my vision of… keeping our citizens safe,” she said, “and making sure the citizens feel safe in their interactions with our officers.”
In contrast, Dickens has proposed entering into a 100-day contract with Bryant. That move, Dickens said, would help him hold Bryant accountable for reducing violent crime, recruiting and retaining officers and making sure they are doing community policing.
“Just for political points sake, a lot of people like to say, ‘We will get another chief,’” Dickens said in an interview. “That is an easy answer because you throw it in the lap of this chief. And you say, ‘He is not doing enough and so I am going to fire him.’
“You have to think about some of the things that are going well and say, ‘Well, I want to put numbers to this and metrics to it and what will make it better’ and work together to get toward the goal and not work toward just firing one person — because the fact is we are in a war against violent crime.”
Asked what would happen if Bryant were to not achieve those goals, Dickens responded: “The same thing that happens with anyone that does not meet their goals and objectives… you have to find another place of employment after you get put on a performance plan.”
Credit: Ben Gray
Credit: Ben Gray
The city detention center’s fate
Crime has been a central theme in this year’s race because it is up in several categories compared to last year, including murder, rape and aggravated assault, Atlanta police statistics show. Some of the homicides have terrified residents.
Last month’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of 779 likely city voters reflected the issue’s urgency: Nearly 70% said Atlanta is on the wrong track in dealing with crime, and 61% said there are places within a mile of their homes where they feel afraid walking alone at night.
Dickens and Moore also differ on the future of the mostly empty Atlanta City Detention Center — where the overarching question is whether to use the facility to ease overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail, or use it as a place to provide services to non-violent offenders. In July, county officials warned hundreds of allegedly violent criminals could be released from the county’s jail if Fulton commissioners did not allocate enough money to ease a massive backlog of pending court cases.
This month, Atlanta and Fulton County officials struck a deal to use a portion of the detention center as a place for police to send people with behavioral issues who are suspected in non-violent offenses. That move followed a campaign by activists to close the building. Backed earlier this year by Bottoms’ administration, the idea of shutting down the facility faced resistance from City Council.
Dickens envisions temporarily using the city detention center to help relieve overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail.
“I don’t want to be in the business of having that be the long-term solution,” he said. “For me, that is an express short-term support mechanism. It is going to have conditions that say, ‘We want to be in and out of this in six to eight months.’
“That should help Fulton County adjudicate these cases to get these individuals to trial and onto whatever the next step is after the judges make their decision.”
After that, he said, the city’s detention center could be used to help people struggling with mental illness and homelessness.
Moore is taking an open-ended approach.
Declaring conditions at the Fulton jail have reached a “humanitarian crisis level,” Moore said she would seek an agreement with county officials about how the city detention center could be used on short- and long-term bases.
“I think we need to have discussions with Fulton County about if they can or need to use it,” she said, adding: “We are going to need, no matter what we do, some capacity for the city to detain people who violate city ordinances.”
“Whether it is the full jail or whether there is something else or whether we lease it to Fulton County or whether we sell the building to Fulton County and do a lease-back where the city can have a portion — those are discussions we need to have. But I am not a supporter of closing the jail or demolishing it as has been proposed.”
Moore also supports providing job training and other help for offenders when they are released from the detention center and are seeking to get back on their feet.
Credit: AJC File
Credit: AJC File
Differences over 2020 police funding vote
Moore has also split with Dickens about police funding.
Last year, Dickens joined six other council members in voting to temporarily withhold $73 million of the Atlanta Police Department’s $217 million operating budget. The money would have been held back until the Bottoms administration drafted a plan to reinvent policing culture in Atlanta and make it a national model. The measure — which failed on an 8-7 vote — was aimed at giving the council leverage in overseeing the process amid nationwide calls for overhauling police departments.
Moore, who as council president votes in cases of ties, said she would have opposed the measure, pointing out the vote happened amid low morale among city police.
“It just didn’t send the right message,” she said. “The key difference in there is judgement. How do you judge the policy decisions you make and understand the impact they will have may be greater than that immediate feel-good decision?”
Dickens defended his vote, saying he has otherwise consistently supported raises and other funding for city police.
“Across the nation, there was a loud cry — and also in Atlanta — for training and for us to review standard operating procedures for law enforcement, bar none,” he said.
“We all said that if officers are putting their knees on folks’ necks and killing them or shooting them in the back or shooting unarmed individuals, we have to take a timeout and assess this,” he said. “What we wanted to do was take a pause and work with the COO, the chief of police and the City Council and we all would say, ‘What do we want our police to do?’”
Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM
What voters are saying
Kimberly Latrice Jones, an author and activist who lives in downtown, arrived ahead of most of Dickens’ other supporters for his fundraiser this month. She appreciates how he is campaigning on creating opportunities and affordable housing for people.
“It is very difficult to have a conversation about public safety without having a conversation about poverty,” she said.
Mac Thurston of the Old Fourth Ward was also in the crowd at Dickens’ event. The owner of Mac’s Beer & Wine Midtown Liquor, he agrees with Dickens’ plans to hire 250 more police officers and prioritize community policing. To prevent thefts and robberies at this store, Thurston said, he pays an “inordinate amount” for private security, calling that a hidden tax.
“I would like community policing to where the guys are actually on the beat,” he said. “They can’t fight crime behind a desk.”
Jennifer Ayers, a nurse from Berkeley Park, wore an orange “#HiFelicia” T-shirt to Moore’s press conference in Northwest Atlanta this month. An “illegal nightclub,” she said, has generated loud noise at night, traffic and parking problems in her neighborhood. She said Moore is the best candidate to tackle such issues.
“It’s been quite the experience having them in the neighborhood,” she said of the nightclub. “We really want them shut down.”
John Newcomb, a businessman from Grant Park, joined Ayers at the event, holding a Felicia Moore campaign sign announcing: “For a Safer Atlanta.”
“I think a lot of our problem now is a lack of respect for the public safety people from the general public and from our officials,” he said. “We have to let them know we appreciate them and we are going to give them the resources they need. But defunding the police when crime is on the upsurge made no sense to me.”