Governor wants lawmakers to take on crime in special session this fall

By: - July 20, 2021 1:00 am

Gov. Brian Kemp told lawmakers he wants them to discuss solutions for an Atlanta crimewave at a special session this fall. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

Gov. Brian Kemp wants lawmakers to take on crime around Atlanta this fall when they meet for a special session.

At a special House public safety committee hearing Monday, the panelists said lawmakers could also increase the budget for state police around Atlanta, restrict local governments from establishing more moderate prosecution policies and institute better pay and retirement policies for troopers.

These policies could come up as soon as the special session lawmakers are preparing to hold as early as this fall to redraw Congressional and legislative lines after the state receives the 2020 Census data. 

“It is my intention to include the work of this committee and solutions from other concerned stakeholders in my call for a special session of the General Assembly this fall,” Kemp said.

“While the General Assembly and my office, along with many state agencies, have stepped into the gap to protect our citizens and help ensure law and order in our capital city, I look forward to working with you all to see what more we can do,” Kemp added.

State officials first broached the topic of supporting Atlanta’s crime-fighting efforts near the end of this year’s legislative session, when House Speaker David Ralston announced the committee would meet to discuss the Georgia State Patrol taking over some of the Atlanta Police Department’s duties following a record-breaking year for violent crime in the city during 2020.

Funding the police

On Monday, Ralston proposed adding about $3 million to the state budget to beef up police efforts in the state capital.

“We know that a key component of fighting crime is having law enforcement officers on our streets, and I’m of the opinion we need more state law enforcement officers working in the City of Atlanta,” he said.

Ralston said he has discussed the effort with House Appropriations Chairman Terry England, an Auburn Republican. The new money would pay for 20 new officers to patrol the streets around Atlanta as part of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s SWAT unit and Nighthawks DUI task force at a cost of about $2 million. Ralston also proposed doubling the size of the GBI’s gang task force and the Georgia Department of Law’s human trafficking task force for a combined cost of about $1 million.

Ralston’s proposals could be considered when the budget is hammered out in the 2022 legislative session.

For comparison, police services made up about $215 million of Atlanta’s $673 million general fund in the city’s 2021 budget.

“I expect this announcement will be just the beginning,” Ralston said.

Improving recruitment and retention

Several speakers at Monday’s hearing connected Atlanta’s violent crime wave with calls to defund police departments that followed last summer’s social justice protests, although Atlanta did not reduce police funding.

But lower public confidence in law enforcement officers means fewer young people are interested in getting into the profession, and experienced police officers are starting to consider other options, said Maj. Joshua Lamb of the Georgia State Patrol.

“If you embolden society to dislike the police, don’t be surprised when people are not signing up to do this job,” he said. “That’s just the reality of the situation. In the past, we were always concerned with recruiting, we were focusing our efforts on recruiting the next generation to come into law enforcement. Now, retention has become as much of a problem as recruiting.”

The Georgia State Patrol employs about 760 troopers, the lowest Lamb said he can remember. The department’s goal is to have 1,000 troopers, he added.

Lawmakers could encourage officers to stick around by giving them more clarity about their earning potential, Lamb said.

Like all state employees, Georgia State troopers receive pay hikes when the Legislature decides to grant them. That can mean it is difficult to know when they might see bigger paychecks.

“If they can look and be able to better predict what their salary will be during certain times throughout the course of their career, I think, would build stability and predictability into their salary, but in turn, also their retirement plan. That keeps coming up a lot, and that seems to be where their mind is, not so much on salary, but salary tied into the retirement plan.”

Restricting local governments

In May, Kemp signed a bill restricting local governments from cutting police budgets by more than 5%.

The measure drew criticism from supporters of local control, who argued that city and county officials are better suited than state lawmakers to decide how to allocate their resources.

The 2022 legislative session could see lawmakers once again attempt to pass bills to restrict localities from adopting more moderate policing practices.

Rep. Alan Powell, a Hartwell Republican, questioned whether that approach could be applied to cash bail, the requirement that a suspect put up money or property to be released before their trial. Cash bail requirements have been questioned by criminal justice reformers in recent years as critics say the practice disproportionately harms poor suspects, but Powell compared attempts to end it with letting criminals run free.

“It may be when we’re in the mood of drafting new legislation, that we need to start being more specific about bonding under certain offenses so that they have no latitude, and start taking some of this latitude away from these more liberal judges who think that they just need to be turned out under personal recognizance when these are dangerous people that have shown a pattern of behavior that needs to be dealt with until they can go in front of the judge or in front of the court,” Powell said.

Attorney General Chris Carr singled out District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez of Georgia’s Western Judicial Circuit.

Gonzalez, who was elected last year, has called for a raft of reforms, including not charging people for simple marijuana possession, expanding pre-trial diversion and recommending defendants charged with non-violent crimes be released without putting up cash or property.

Carr said district attorneys should not be able to pick and choose which kinds of cases they prosecute.

“That’s a dereliction of duty,” he told lawmakers. “You all pass the laws of the state. The governor signs those laws. If they don’t like it, they should run for the Legislature and change the law that way. I think it is dangerous for a member of the executive branch or the judicial branch to say I’m just not going to enforce the law.”

In a statement, Gonzalez accused Carr of playing politics.

“The people elected me to do two things,” she said. “First, prioritize serious, violent crime instead of misusing resources on minor, victimless offenses. Second, use proven approaches to reform a system that has failed to make our communities safer. That’s what I’m doing. Violent crime is a serious problem, and If AG Carr wants to stop playing politics and work together on addressing it, I am ready to do so.”

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.