OPINION: Atlanta crime-control pendulum swings toward hard line. Again

A Cobb County SWAT team took a man into custody on Monday morning, July 19, 2021, following an hourslong standoff, police said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)



A Cobb County SWAT team took a man into custody on Monday morning, July 19, 2021, following an hourslong standoff, police said. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

The political season for 2022 is off and running and Georgia’s Republicans think they have a winning issue: The carnage on Atlanta’s streets.

An all-afternoon hearing Monday of the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee started off with Speaker David Ralston saying this is about solutions and not a political dog and pony show. One of his plans is to add 20 more state troopers to the roster to patrol Atlanta.

Next up was Gov. Brian Kemp, who almost immediately went political by pressing the importance of a robust state anti-gang task force. “Because the local elected leadership in our capital city has created an anti-police, soft-on-crime environment, the task force work is needed now more than ever,” Kemp said.

Following Gov. Shotgun was Attorney General Chris Carr, who fancies himself to be a future governor. “Prosecutors must prosecute gang members for their violent crimes,” he said, a statement that would only generate disagreement among gangbangers.

Then he added, “But unfortunately there are some who’ve decided to pick and choose which laws they want to enforce, and their self-interest-driven criminal justice reform (he emphasized ‘criminal justice reform’ with air quotes) is nothing more than this — a dereliction of duty.”

Asked by Democratic state Rep. Scott Holcomb to identify such derelict DAs, Carr named District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez from Athens. She has said more defendants should be released on signature bonds and that she’d step back from prosecuting some low-level drug cases.

She told The Associated Press on Monday, “Violent crime is a serious problem, and if AG Carr wants to stop playing politics and work together on addressing it, I am ready to do so.”

A medical examiner looks over a body at the scene of a shooting in the parking lot of a Chevron station at the corner of Monroe Drive and Piedmont Road in Atlanta on June 21, 2021. A rideshare driver opened fired at the gas station, killing one passenger and injuring another.(Christine Tannous / christine.tannous@ajc.com)

Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Atlanta Journal-Constitution

So, how do I know this “fact-finding” process is larded with political initiative? Because 10 people (mostly from law enforcement) spoke to the GOP-dominated legislative committee and the only city resident called to testify was Bill White, who until three years ago was a well-to-do New York jabberer who decided to move to Buckhead. Today, he’s the guy heading the effort to have Buckhead secede from the city of Atlanta, a move that will drive a stake through the heart of the ATL.

That’s right, out of 500,000 residents in Atlanta, they pick this guy?!? At least the state GOP is tipping its hand where its heart lies on the subject of fracturing the city it says it wants to help.

The marathon hearing brought up some interesting facts: The GBI’s crime lab had an evidence backlog from 45,000 cases that needed processing before prosecutions could commence. That’s been cut to about 25,000.

The Georgia State Patrol is down to about 760 troopers, “the lowest I’ve ever seen,” GSP Maj. Josh Lamb told the committee. He said the department’s longtime goal is 1,000, which is coincidental because the Atlanta Police Department, which now has slightly more than 1,600 officers, has long yearned for 2,000 cops. That tells me one thing: Law enforcement brass likes to shoot for round, easily articulable (and largely unreachable) numbers.

Also, 1,100 guns were stolen out of cars last year in the city, according to APD Assistant Chief Todd Coyt, who was called before the committee to serve as the city’s sacrificial lamb. Republican state Rep. Alan Powell noted that with a ring of truth.

Those 1,100 guns, and the countless others stolen statewide, generally end up being used for nefarious purposes. Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb later told the panel, “It’s amazing to me how many guns are in unlocked cars.”

Babb testified as sort of a tag team with Forsyth County Sheriff Ron Freeman, Republican lawmen from two counties with the state’s highest median income (and correspondingly among the lowest crime rates).

Todd Coyt, assistant chief of the Atlanta Police Department, speaks at the Atlanta Police Recruit Housing Ground Breaking Ceremony on January 9, 2020, in Atlanta's English Avenue neighborhood. (BOB ANDRES / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: bandres@ajc.com

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Credit: bandres@ajc.com

Republican state Rep. Bill Werkheiser told the two sheriffs his vehicle had been broken into — it was locked — and his gun stolen. Babb responded that criminals look for signs (literally) that a gun might be in the car. Decals that say things such as “I hunt,” or “Armed forces veteran,” or “This vehicle protected by Glock.”

You might as well affix a sticker to a window saying, “Smash here!”

The hearing indicated where the winds are headed in political circles when it comes to crime, law enforcement and justice.

Back in the early 1990s, crime was raging because of the crack epidemic. Tough initiatives like the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law were the rage. Not to be outdone, Georgia’s governor at the time, Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat when there were such creatures, went one better: Two strikes, meaning life in prison for the second conviction of several serious offenses. Crime in the decades since dropped and prisons filled. Was the crime drop a result of two-strikes? Probably. At least some of it.

Gone was the touchy-feely stuff from the 1970s and 1980s, like calling the prison system the “Department of Offender Rehabilitation.” (That had led to oddities like this gem from a 1983 AJC story concerning an electrocution: “Department of Offender Rehabilitation authorities indicated they were satisfied with the manner of the execution.”)

But Georgia residents and politicians eventually grew tired of paying for a burgeoning, and expensive, prison population. And stories abounded about disparities in how the law was meted out. In the past decade, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal pushed through a criminal justice reform that expanded drug courts that urged treatment rather than incarceration. Prison populations accordingly dropped.

Now, as murders explode in Atlanta and elsewhere, the tide again seems to be turning. Terms like “revolving door” and “a lack of consequences” were tossed about for the entire afternoon at Monday’s public safety committee hearing. The GSP major said the “demonization of police” has pushed cops back on their heels and caused them to stop enforcing the law as aggressively as they once did.

“I do believe the pendulum has swung. We need to be more stringent on who we discipline,” Coyt, the assistant police chief, told a legislator before quickly adding, “We still need to know we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem.”

Coyt, no doubt, must temper his remarks in light of an Atlanta administration that, for starters, has largely done away with cash bail for city violations, and says it wants to close the city jail and turn it into an “equity center.” Also, the administration announced last week it wants to establish a $70 million “Office of Violence Reduction,” a bureaucratic creation that would hire more cops, erect more streetlights and expand social programs.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who is capping her mayoral career at one term, last year vowed to reform police tactics after the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd. However, the city allowed anarchy to fester in spots like the Wendy’s in southwest Atlanta that was burned down after police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks.

The southwest Atlanta Wendy's where police killed Rayshard Brooks was destroyed in June 2020 during a large protest. (BEN GRAY for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

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Credit: Ben Gray for the AJC

That created more violence, including the death of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, who was killed when gun-toting goons blocking the street shot into her family’s car.

This week’s legislative committee didn’t delve into what might be causing the mayhem on our streets, other than disrespect for police. It doesn’t seem like there is much stomach anymore for nuance or depth in these discussions.

The momentum is now firmly “Let’s kick some butt.”