If there is one thing we can all agree on it is that public safety helps define a city and determine its future. Citizens of Atlanta have grown all too familiar with – and weary from – news reports of increased crime, coupled with incidents of police brutality.
We have seen the statistics: Murders are up, rape and aggravated assaults are up, and shootings are also up across the city - by double digits over last year.
To solve Atlanta’s crime problem, we must first acknowledge a few elephants in the room: Lack of trust. Politics. Public fear and anger.
Distrust is at an all-time high: between police and citizens, citizens and police, and citizens and government.
From a personal and political standpoint, I know these trauma bonds firsthand, and I recognize that part of my job as a state Senator is to rebuild trust. This shortage of trust makes it harder to solve some of the city’s, state’s and nation’s key problems, including policing and law enforcement.
Public safety and police accountability are not mutually exclusive. And both should be devoid of politics.
Instead, fear and anger have created a potent parasite – one that is opportunistic and knows no boundaries. It’s one that’s driving already-existing divisions in our city to the breaking point.
There is a real crisis of confidence. And while there is no one singular solution, we do know that it will take aggressive and innovative action that relies on synchronistic public and private partnership to address the nuances of modern life, human behavior and evolving expectations.
A jumpstart to this process is to reimagine what the partnership between Atlanta’s police force and the community looks like.
As Atlanta strengthens its police force, it must consider research that consistently shows that college-educated officers generate fewer citizen complaints and are less likely to use force.
Meaningful police reform begins with implementing better-prepared law enforcement officers.
Thus the plan must involve quickly hiring qualified recruits to join the Atlanta Police Department.
More specifically, recruit recent graduates from the 100-plus historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU’s), in a targeted and sustainable approach to yield officers who reflect the community they serve and to improve cultural competency.
HBCU graduates often possess above-average problem solving and creative thinking skills – traits required for 21st century community- and problem-oriented policing. College coursework in psychology, sociology, and criminal justice is an ideal complement to the training of future APD officers.
To combat attrition, offer meaningful incentives to stay on the force for a minimum of five years.
Prioritize additional benefits and professional development, regardless of cost, so the department can remain effective and competitive over time. In addition to existing efforts from the Atlanta Police Foundation, we should quickly design and implement other city-enacted programs to bolster incentives and housing efforts to encourage, and make affordable, living in the same city where officers work.
A meaningful plan to assist in student loan repayment is another angle worth exploring. We simply must make additional investments and leverage leadership capital to support and keep Atlanta’s officers from leaving for other jurisdictions once they are trained.
Efforts which work to eliminate the conditions that drive criminal behavior are an equally important task. Developing empathy-driven solutions which seek to combat poverty, homelessness, broaden access to mental health care and economic opportunity all foster an environment of resilience, community stewardship and growth - the mirror opposite of resentment and desperation which has helped fuel our beloved city’s surge in crime.
So yes, rising crime is a problem, but the city of Atlanta has not “gone to hell.” As the adults in the room, we have the power – and responsibility – to tone down the anger and chaos rhetoric.
We all deserve to live in a safe, prosperous city, and I believe the best way to do that is together.
I am calling on all of my fellow Atlantans: my colleagues, elected officials, law enforcement, corporations, civil rights leaders, faith-based institutions, nonprofits and communities to step up, unite, assess the situation and find workable solutions that move us forward.
Please join me so we can remind the world (and ourselves) why Atlanta is one of the world’s greatest cities.
State Sen. Sonya Halpern, D-Atlanta, represents Senate District 39.