Opinion: ATL City Council: Please don’t politicize work, needs of city’s first responders

Atlanta Police officers walk into The City Hall to help with security as the Council is set to approve legislation that funds the training center on Monday, June 5, 2023.
Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Combined ShapeCaption
Atlanta Police officers walk into The City Hall to help with security as the Council is set to approve legislation that funds the training center on Monday, June 5, 2023. Miguel Martinez /miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Over the years, Atlanta’s elected leaders have backed up their words of support for our city’s public safety personnel with action. They have made it clear that keeping our residents and communities safe and providing our brave first responders with the salaries, benefits, training and equipment they need to do their jobs is a top priority. We are grateful for their partnership because it matters to the people who work in our departments every day, giving their very best and often risking their lives.

Inside the departments, our firefighters and officers are all too aware of the debate around the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center and the pressure many elected leaders are facing right now as the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals deliberates questions about petitions. While we absolutely support the planned center, we wish to pause and step outside the debate about its merit and, instead, share our grave concerns about the negative impact of the City Council prematurely placing public safety on the ballot.

Although two separate city councils already have overwhelmingly voted in favor of the center by veto-proof majorities, it is understandable that individual council members may have differing views about the training center. But a ballot action by City Council would politicize the role of first responders within the walls of City Hall. While we wear uniforms of service and are not looking at who or how anyone votes, this action would have unfortunate consequences that should not be taken lightly.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Our public safety personnel would view their City Council placing a ballot measure as a wholesale reversal of its support for their hard work and dedication to the people of Atlanta. The blow to morale would be crippling at a time when we have all worked so hard to successfully see a drop in violent crime this year.

It would have a direct impact on our recruitment and retention efforts. Neighboring communities such as Cobb and Gwinnett counties are investing in their own state-of-the-art training centers and Henry County just announced a 40-acre, $70-plus million training facility. This will be a draw in recruiting personnel and will pull our workforce to these other communities. Make no mistake: It is a competitive marketplace and Cobb, Gwinnett and Henry counties are among the departments that are also looking for the best and brightest public safety officers and offering attractive recruiting terms.

Discussions about the importance of recruitment and retention are not a rhetorical exercise. Reductions in force means longer response time for first responders and fewer officers where many people gather, such as our airport, parks, shopping centers and neighborhoods. In the past, the city experienced the closing of fire stations and brownouts because we did not have enough firefighters to operate them.

We should also remind ourselves that without enough fire-rescue and police officers, we cannot safely manage the iconic events that we Atlantans take for granted, such as the Peachtree Road Race, Atlanta Pride Parade, Atlanta Jazz Festival, Dragon Con and even our major sporting events. These events happen because we have police officers on the streets and firefighters on fire trucks.

To be clear, we believe the majority of Atlanta citizens recognize its importance and support the center. What concerns us is the city council placing the issue on the ballot prematurely as the process plays out in the 11th Circuit and, in the meantime, causing irreparable harm to the morale of our personnel.

Our public safety personnel are here to protect and serve the residents of Atlanta with the support of our leaders. We are focused every day on creating a safer Atlanta by reducing crime, protecting people in harm’s way and building trust in partnership with our community.

Let us not send a message that we are abandoning our public safety officers by putting public safety on the ballot inside City Hall.

Darin Schierbaum is Atlanta Police Chief and James “Skip” McLemore is interim Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief.

About the Author