Mayor Kasim Reed’s commitment to public safety and the impending announcement of a new police chief are giving us renewed optimism for the Atlanta Police Department to turn a major corner.
The city has a chance to roll back years of high officer attrition rates, job furloughs, pay freezes, lack of promotions and other morale-busters — and let police commanders and officers get down to the true business of fighting crime.
But a $48 million shortfall in the city budget is threatening to put a damper on those high hopes. We can’t let that happen.
Mayor Reed has proposed adding 100 new Atlanta Police Department officers to the fiscal year 2011 budget, which the City Council will vote on June 21. The mayor has also proposed a 3.5 percent salary increase for officers, those who put their lives on the line to keep peace and confront outlaws every day in our great city.
The Atlanta Police Foundation believes those are two good steps toward keeping our status as the South’s premier city and keeping our residents, workers and visitors safe.
We believe it boils down to two simple facts, borne out by studies conducted on behalf of the Police Foundation and shared with Mayor Reed upon his election:
Police visibility is a key factor in reducing crime. The city of Atlanta is losing more police officers, on average, during a typical year than other large departments.
So, getting more officers on the street — and more importantly, keeping them there — is essential.
On average, 83 officers resign from the APD every year, a rate of roughly 9.1 percent over the last few years. The national average is between 5 percent and 7 percent.
In 2007, that number was 121, and in 2008, 85 left for reasons other than retirement. In exit interview data, 73 percent who left from 2006 to 2008 cited pay as the most compelling reason for leaving the department.
Atlanta police officers are highly sought after for their excellent training, skill and big-city experience. With new municipalities such as Dunwoody, Milton, Sandy Springs and others formed in recent years, those new police forces and other local and federal agencies are able to lure APD officers away with higher pay and benefits.
Some City Council members are understandably concerned about the city’s difficult financial picture, and have already expressed a reluctance to offer raises to police officers, while not to other city workers.
Big-city budget problems are real, particularly in these difficult economic times, and should not be shrugged off lightly. But budget-cutting on the backs of our men and women in blue has consequences that are easily measured in the form of increased crime.
The city has largely benefited from improved policing and a national drop in crime in recent decades. Still, city residents felt the sting of random violent acts in 2009 that shook our conscience, and property crimes were up slightly. It’s simply not good enough to sit still. We must act now to make the Atlanta Police Department the greatest force in the nation.
The Atlanta Police Foundation is doing its part. We’ve committed $2.4 million this year to improving the police department, including the launch of a Web site to streamline the recruit hiring process, joinatlantapd.org.
We can’t do it alone. City Council members need to hear from residents, business owners and other constituents that public safety just can’t be sacrificed this time. Fund the Atlanta Police Department properly, and let’s hire and keep the best of the best.
Dave Wilkinson is president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation.
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