Georgia Republicans aim to capitalize on Atlanta’s rising crime rate

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is exploring legislation to give state law enforcement officers broad new powers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
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Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is exploring legislation to give state law enforcement officers broad new powers. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

After another weekend of headlines about crime in Atlanta, Gov. Brian Kemp laid down a new political marker by making $5 million in emergency funds available for state law enforcement efforts targeting criminal activity.

That move telegraphs a key part of the GOP strategy in 2022 to halt the comeback attempt by resurgent Democrats.

From the top ranks of GOP leadership to rank-and-file lawmakers, Republicans both near and far from Atlanta’s city limits are seizing on rising crime rates as a powerful political argument.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr this week promised to help “fill the void created by Atlanta officials’ failure to lead.” State Sen. Butch Miller, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Statehouse, kicked off his campaign for lieutenant governor by highlighting the crime rate.

Atlanta police investigate a shooting scene earlier this month. The city saw homicides surge in 2020, and shootings remain a problem. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
Atlanta police investigate a shooting scene earlier this month. The city saw homicides surge in 2020, and shootings remain a problem. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

And Georgia House Speaker David Ralston hopes to preserve the GOP’s narrowing edge in his chamber by exploring legislation that could give state law enforcement officers new powers. The first of a series of public hearings began Wednesday.

“Atlanta has a crime problem and doesn’t seem to be able to bring it under control,” the speaker said.

‘Lack of support’

At the first hearing, Republicans talked in grave terms about feeling unsafe walking on streets not far from the Statehouse and in shopping centers, such as Lenox Square. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said he’s particularly concerned about “Black on Black crime.”

“If you can’t respect your own neighborhoods and your own people, then how can you be expected to respect the others?” he asked, using a loaded and controversial phrase.

The lawmakers on the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security put together a wish list for testimony that included Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, law enforcement officials, criminal justice experts, local activists, merchants and victims of crime.

State Rep. Clint Crowe, a former Henry County police detective, also urged the committee to include rank-and-file police officers.

“In order to stop the crime that’s happening in these areas, you need proactive policing to go out and do that,” said Crowe, a Republican from Jackson. “And right now, a lot of officers are hesitant to go out and police because they feel a lack of support.”

Democrats agreed on the need to address metro Atlanta’s crime, but they encouraged a holistic approach that also factors in gun violence, the ongoing effects of the global health crisis and troubling trends in other parts of the state.

“This isn’t just about Atlanta,” said state Rep. Gloria Frazier, D-Hephzibah.

‘Work together’

Though most serious crime fell in 2020, the number of homicides in Atlanta surged, making it the deadliest year in decades. A spate of shootings this year has led some intown residents to bolt for the suburbs.

And just before state legislators met Wednesday, an Atlanta city councilman and mayoral candidate reported his car was stolen while he attended a ribbon-cutting in northwest Atlanta.

Much of the criticism for the surge has fallen on Bottoms, a prominent Democrat who has responded by pointing to other major U.S. cities that experienced a violent crime surge during the coronavirus pandemic and protests for social justice.

She’s called for Republicans to address the “historic increase in gun violence” by tightening firearms restrictions. And, more recently, she’s tasked local residents and experts with developing recommendations to reduce gun violence and other crime plaguing the city.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, a Democrat, has called on Republicans to tighten the state's gun restrictions to combat an increase in violent crime. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms, a Democrat, has called on Republicans to tighten the state's gun restrictions to combat an increase in violent crime. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

But it hasn’t blunted the backlash from liberals and conservatives who have demanded the mayor pursue a more effective strategy. And many draw a line between the city’s law-and-order struggles and Bottoms’ decision not to run for another term, though she has denied a connection.

“When I was a young teenager, I would take the bus from Buford to downtown Atlanta to spend the day. Now I would never let my young child do that,” said Miller, who announced his run for lieutenant governor this week.

Miller then took aim at proposals that would shift some funding away from traditional policing and redirect that money to services such as mental health treatment or education. No local governments in Georgia have followed through with proposals to significantly reduce police funding, although elected officials in Athens and Atlanta briefly considered changing the way they funded law enforcement.

“We cannot consider reducing money dedicated to public safety — we have to raise the pay, increase the training and be more committed,” he said.

Other metro Atlanta governments are exploring new ways to combat crime. DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond wants to use a portion of coronavirus relief money to prevent more gun violence.

“We must work together to make DeKalb County a safer place for all,” Thurmond said. “Regardless of race, religion or socioeconomic status, everyone deserves a safe place to live, work and play.”

New crackdowns

For Kemp, an emphasis on public safety is only expected to intensify as an expected 2022 showdown against Stacey Abrams nears.

Republicans are still smarting after losing Georgia in a White House race for the first time in nearly three decades, followed by a Democratic sweep in the U.S. Senate runoffs.

His aides hope an emphasis on public safety could help win back suburbanites who bolted the party during the Donald Trump era while also shoring up support among conservatives upset that Kemp didn’t try to overturn the former president’s defeat in Georgia.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and state House Speaker David Ralston, both Republicans, have launched efforts recently that highlight crime in Atlanta, indicating that it could be a prominent issue in next year's elections. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Caption
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and state House Speaker David Ralston, both Republicans, have launched efforts recently that highlight crime in Atlanta, indicating that it could be a prominent issue in next year's elections. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

In recent weeks, the first-term governor has touted his administration’s initiatives to target human trafficking and street racing and promoted recent arrest stats from the Department of Public Safety. Earlier this month, he signed a measure sponsored by an Athens Republican that bans any sizable reduction in local budgets for police officers.

The $5 million in new funding, Kemp said this week, is part of a broader effort to “crack down on criminal street gangs, prioritize public safety at the state level and keep our communities safe.”

Much of the political focus on crime will soon shift to the legislative hearings that began Wednesday. Ralston and his deputies said the findings could result in legislative proposals and new budget appropriations to beef up public safety efforts.

“This committee wants to dig down and look at the facts,” said state Rep. J. Collins, the Villa Rica Republican who chairs the panel. “There’s going to be a lot of politics in this, and we want to sidestep that.”

Some members of the committee are wary of that prediction. State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said he didn’t want the hearings to be a “grandstanding exercise” aimed at 2022 talking points.

“I hope the hearings will be substantive and examine short and long-term policy solutions,” he said, “without the racist tropes and political posturing we heard today.”