Where Will The Cops Come From?

Election season has descended upon us, and with it a bidding war on crime numbers.

I’ve just started lying to Facebook. I’m one of the mad few people in the world who wants to see political advertising, and I need Facebook’s algorithm to think I live in the city proper and can vote on the mayor’s race. So, I changed my Facebook residence to open the floodgates.

This newsletter has an overt political purpose. I want to influence voters who think crime is an important issue in Atlanta, so that they can ask intelligent, difficult questions of political candidates and shape the political reaction to crime. I want Atlanta to avoid knee-jerk jingoistic counterproductive reactions to this crime wave. I’m not trying to try to pick a horse; I want to see a better race run.

For the most part, candidates who stand a fighting chance of winning election this year get it. There are, of course, 14 people running for mayor, nine of whom lit their $5,529 qualifying fee on fire the day they signed up, and would have understood that if they had the political acumen necessary to run the city in the first place. Many of the also-ran candidates manifestly do not get it, probably lack the capacity to get it and deserve the two and three-digit vote totals they’re going to get instead.

Looking at you, Mark Hammad.

We like to think campaigns are won or lost on the issues. We like to think lots of things about our democracy that aren’t true. Let’s get real for a second: almost no one is watching the interminable forums. Political forums with more than two people on stage exist as a ritual of power meant to create accountability after someone gets elected by being able to refer to promises made during an election. Most candidates have at least an abstract “plan” posted on their websites that – again – almost no one reads. The people who do read those are supervoters who are devilishly difficult to influence.

Forums suck. Nonetheless, the AJC hosted a mayoral forum on Monday that bears a word or two. Crime dominated the 90-minute conversation, and candidates gave answers that were different enough to note the separation.

Critically, I think it punctured this idea that Kasim Reed is substantially better on crime.

“When I was mayor, the city had the lowest crime rate in 40 years,” Reed said. Well, sure. Almost every city in America had the lowest crime rates in 40 years between 2009 and 2017, when he was serving. There’s no reason to believe that Reed’s leadership distinguished Atlanta in this regard; the fall in crime in Atlanta during Reed’s administration was actually a bit slower than the rate of decline for other large cities. Notably, Atlanta had a sharp and uncharacteristic uptick in homicides in 2016 ... which also had nothing to do with Reed.

The AJC’s J.D. Capelouto noted that gun violence had increased during Reed’s administration. I would add that this increase came amid a broad trend of decrease in violent crime nationally.

Reed, city council president Felicia Moore and attorney Sharon Gay all argued for giving the police more political face time, showing up to roll call and reinforcing the idea of due process for cops accused for misconduct. That’s a direct response to criticism of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms decision to immediately fire cops accused of misconduct last year during the protests and in the Rayshard Brooks shooting.

It’s clear that there’s a bidding war among the candidates for how many new police officers their administrations would hire. All of their numbers should be taken with the highest degree of political skepticism, because there’s no mechanism any of them have proposed that would hit their numbers.

Both Reed and Moore said they would encourage the hiring of retired police officers. That idea deserves some challenge, because it’s not at all clear that there’s a reserve of retired police officers who are eager to be reinvited to service, regardless of what financial incentive the city presents.

Reed went on to say that he wanted to hire a new police chief. Folks, we should all assume that any new mayor is going to hire a new police chief. I like Chief Rodney Bryant but I’m under no illusions that his appointment doesn’t have an expiration date, and I don’t think he is either. Bottoms pulled a retired officer into the role specifically to avoid a food fight over the job after the resignation of Chief Erika Shields during the Brooks’ protests.

Reed also suggested spending down some of the city’s reserves to push overtime for police, as a way of immediately addressing staffing shortfalls. It’s not entirely unreasonable, but is almost certainly unsustainable. One of the dirty secrets of policing here is how much cops depend on extra-duty work to cover their bills. Police officers may work 20 hours of extra time in private security roles, earning $50 an hour – or more – as supplemental income. Mandatory overtime in their day jobs is a financial penalty as a practical matter for a lot of officers, one that may make retention difficult and create a long-term staffing problem while trying to solve a short-term problem.

Both Reed and Moore are looking for ways to use the existing staff more effectively. Moore’s approach would be to restructure the department’s duty assignments, pulling police out of administrative roles or desk duty and into the street. The problem there is that there’s precious little out-of-service time that can be eliminated without causing other problems, like adding to the administrative backlog leaving cases unprosecuted. So much code enforcement – of the type that can close an illegal bar or shutter a crack house – isn’t beat-level community policing. The city has authorized police staffing targets of 2,000 officers for a reason.

Councilman Antonio Brown, by far, has the most progressively transformative crime reduction platform. Brown, more than any other major candidate, appears to clearly understand the connection between poverty and crime. He is arguing for a Department of Public Safety and Wellness, a 24-hour non-emergency response line unit that focuses on quality of life and mental health issues. He would rescind the “Cop City” training facility agreement and immediately close the mostly-empty city jail.

It’s sharply different from Reed’s position. “I think closing down the jail sent the wrong message to repeat offenders,” Reed said, hearkening back to his complaints four years ago about repeat offender treatment by the city and county courts. I remind you all that jail has been found to be a weak deterrent to violent crime, and that it is the prevalence of desperate circumstances that leads to violence.

Brown and Gay both emphasized the power of community policing – that is, beat-level relationship building between the police and neighborhoods, so that an officer is not some interchangeable faceless machine indifferent to local conditions. Gay wants to pay particular attention to code enforcement and problem properties, which have been a screaming point of contention in neighborhoods, who feel unheard when complaining about this problem.

But community policing is far more difficult to pull off than it would seem on its face, because community policing is manpower intensive at a time when it’s hard to recruit additional cops.

I think these are glorious ideas. I also think they’re damned hard to do well. All of this requires a fundamental cultural change in policing, which requires transformational leadership ... which we have yet to identify. There’s a layer of institutional and public buy-in that has to be earned over time. The increase in violent crime is a crisis that will resist organizational change. That doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t do it, but the idea is hard, and it is being proposed by someone who may or may not be able to see it through given his personal travails.

The contrast with Reed here is clear. Reed is proposing to build APD into a “best in class” police force, without transformative changes in training or leadership styles.

Like Reed and Moore, councilman Andre Dickens wants to find a way to get more cops on the ground quickly. In his 100-day contract to reduce crime, Dickens wants to hire 75 to 100 officers “aggressively” from other jurisdictions. One presumes this means offering sign-on bonuses or other perks, so that an Atlanta police job appears to be more attractive than competitors. Left unspoken is how to do this without currently-serving officers feeling slighted by incentives for new officers.

It’s important to understand that the reasons a police officer might leave APD are complex. On the one hand, Atlanta is an attractive policing environment for young officers looking to build big city case experience and specialized training. Pay is only part of the picture, as is the perception of a politicized working environment. The pace of duty and the quality of policing matters to a lot of cops, many of whom really do want to be involved in community oriented, preventative police work and not a relentless grind against the social problems of Atlanta’s poverty. Living close to work matters. Policing a neighborhood you live in is a tremendous temptation made increasingly difficult by Atlanta’s runaway housing costs. Recruiting is a difficult problem.

I note in passing that Reed’s administration eviscerated APD’s defined benefit pension plan for incoming recruits in the name of shoring up the city’s long-term financial health. Doing so helped create the retention problems in the department today. I am surprised no one brought it up.

But everyone is bidding on recruiting cops, because they think that number is the only one voters will remember when they’re filling out their ballots — the bigger number, the better.

This is exactly the politics I wanted to avoid. But here we are.