Critics question impact of law banning Georgia cities from cutting police funding

It got lots of publicity during the recently completed General Assembly session, but there may be little practical impact from a recently passed bill that would ban local governments from drastically reducing their law enforcement budgets.

Supporters of House Bill 286 say it would keep people safe by not allowing local officials to “defund” police departments — an idea that’s gained attention in the past year as national criminal justice advocates called for the reallocation of money spent on police forces to fund services such as mental health treatment or education.

Opponents say not only does the bill fly in the face of state Republican lawmakers’ often-stated principle of allowing local governments to have control over local issues, but the legislation lacks teeth.

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign the legislation, which would bar cities and counties from reducing their law enforcement budgets by more than 5% in one year or cumulatively across five years.

The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said he was spurred to file the legislation after Atlanta and Athens-Clarke County governments considered substantially decreasing their police budgets. Neither did.

“This puts protections in place to make sure that local governments can’t defund the police,” Gaines said. “These proposals ... I have concerns that they would come back.”

The Atlanta City Council voted 8-7 last summer against withholding $73 million — almost 34% — from the police budget while Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms drafted a plan to review policing. It did, however, pass a resolution demanding that Bottoms’ administration create that plan.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, who opposed HB 286, said the Athens-Clarke County unified government discussed the reallocation of half of police resources to other areas of government to address issues such as mental health, homelessness or workforce development.

The conversations were in response to the killings of Black men and women by police across the country, with activists saying that often a large percentage of a city’s budget goes to a criminal justice system that doesn’t keep them safe.

“People have experienced real trauma over the last many years either in direct contact with law enforcement violence or secondarily by observing that violence. That’s a real phenomenon,” Girtz said. “Locally, I think my colleagues on the County Commission wanted to respond to the reality of that trauma that we’ve seen again and again.”

Joe Stiles, Georgia executive director of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, called Gaines’ legislation “refreshing.”

“We believe it offers a reasonable plan to protect citizens and communities from improper efforts to defund police departments,” the union director said.

HB 286 includes exemptions for police forces with fewer than 25 officers, for one-time spending on equipment or facility purchases, and if the local government sees a decline in revenue. It also would require local governments to allow public safety officers and first responders who request it to have money set aside from their paycheck used to pay premiums for insurance plans that provide legal assistance if needed.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, said the fact that the legislation doesn’t include any oversight or penalties for local governments that cut more than 5% from their law enforcement budget makes the bill “partisan grandstanding wrapped in stupidity.”

“This proposed law does not serve a policy purpose — it serves a campaign purpose,” he said. “The only time it will ever be used will be in campaign ads.”

The legislation requires any local government that wishes to decrease the police budget by more than 5% to hold public hearings discussing the changes. Gaines said if the decrease is approved, a resident could challenge the budget cut in court.

“A local government ... would be breaking state law,” he said. “And I’m confident the courts would ensure that local governments follow the law as we’ve written.”