Georgia National Guard troops have once again been granted the ability to act as law enforcement through the authority of Gov. Brian Kemp, as Georgia passed its tenth consecutive month of a military-policed state of emergency. On April 1, Kemp renewed the state of emergency declared by executive order, which authorizes the state’s National Guard to act in a law enforcement capacity. 

The renewal comes amid concerns of rising crime in Atlanta and related state-vs.-city politics, as well as legislative discussions about how to limit the governor’s emergency powers during a time of crisis. The authorization of soldiers policing the city has stayed in place for a variety of changing reasons, from protecting state property to combating street crime to deterring election-period violence.

“It’s just a matter of augmenting the law enforcement professionals to deter things,” said Thomas Carden, an adjutant general of the Georgia Department of Defense who helps advise the governor on whether to extend the state of emergency. “It’s much more efficient to deter a problem than it is to go to all the expense, the danger, the trouble associated with dealing with a problem once it’s gotten out of hand.”

A history of executive orders 

Georgia National Guard troops line up on West Paces Ferry Road near the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead on May 30, 2020 as protesters begin to gather. (Governor’s Office)

On May 29, 2020, Kemp signed an initial executive order declaring a state of emergency in Fulton County in response to unrest in the wake of riots that spun out of protests about the death of George Floyd, who was killed by Minnesota police on May 25. That executive order enabled Fulton County to activate up to 500 National Guard troops because of “unlawful assemblage, violence, overt threats of violence, disruption of the peace and tranquility of Fulton County, and danger existing to persons and property.”

On May 30, the governor signed two more executive orders as a preemptive measure for further protests, one authorizing up to 1,500 National Guard troops, and then another extending the state of emergency statewide and calling up an additional 1,500 troops. 

Those executive orders came mainly in response to the social unrest and outrage over Floyd’s killing. But a July 6, 2020 order, which the governor has renewed multiple times, also listed a “dramatic increase in violent crime in Georgia’s capital city” as reasoning for the order. The order specifically points to two people killed in shootings: Rayshard Brooks, who was killed by Atlanta Police officers, sparking protests, and 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, a bystander killed while driving past the site of Brooks’s death, where armed protesters were camped. The order also points to damage done by vandals to the Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters on July 5. 

The July 6 order authorizes the use of up to 1,000 National Guard troops. A press release from the governor’s office said the troops would guard the Governor’s Mansion in Buckhead, the State Capitol and the Georgia Department of Public Safety headquarters. 

The executive order also points to the governor’s Public Health Emergency executive order, and states that Georgia’s response to “this state of emergency and the Public Health state of emergency should both proceed simultaneously without one impeding the other.” 

Carden of the Georgia Department of Defense said that while the most “volatile period” was the summer of 2020, the National Guard has had an almost continuous presence at the State Capitol since then. He said the focus of the National Guard through civil unrest last summer, rising crime and a “contentious” election period in the fall has been deterrence. 

Despite multiple renewals of the executive order and the enhanced ability of the National Guard, the Governor’s Office has not issued a press release about those renewals. The office has issued press releases regarding executive orders extending the Public Health Emergency due to COVID-19, but has not issued anything about the state of emergency since July 6, 2020.

Governor’s Office spokesperson Mallory Blount said residents can view executive orders online. 

“We occasionally issue press releases on executive orders, but usually do not,” said Blount in an email. “Since the executive order has remained relatively the same, we did not find it necessary to issue a press release again. If something changes, we would consider doing so.”

Supplementing police 

When the governor first signed the July 6, 2020 order, the governor’s office issued a press release which said the National Guard’s aid would allow law enforcement to focus on patrolling communities rather than protecting state property. The press release points to “weeks of dramatically increased violent crime and property destruction in the City of Atlanta” as one of the reasons for the executive order. Over the Fourth of July weekend in 2020, over 30 Georgians were wounded by gunfire with five confirmed dead. 

“The lawlessness must be stopped and order restored in our capital city,” Kemp said in the July 6 press release.

According to the Atlanta Police Department’s weekly crime reports, by the week of Dec. 20-26, 2020, total reported murders were up 62% compared to 2019. Aggravated assault was up 15% and auto theft was up 4%. Other crimes — rape, robbery, bulglary and larceny — had decreased compared to 2019. 

On March 25, Georgia Speaker of the House David Ralston sent a letter to Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms regarding the rise in crime in Atlanta. According to the letter, Georgia House of Representatives hearings will be held to discuss crime in the city and whether “state intervention may be necessary.” According to the letter, Rep. J. Collins, chair of the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, will hold the hearings. 

“I would request that the City of Atlanta cooperate with the Committee’s proceedings,” said Ralston in the letter. “I know that we share a desire to see Atlanta remain a place that families and businesses wish to call home.” 

The Mayor’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

According to Carden, the National Guard has maintained some presence throughout the state, mostly focusing on supplementing police at the State Capitol. He said as of March 8, the National Guard has not arrested anybody since the governor declared a state of emergency.

“The emergency order authorized us to have arrest powers, but what I tell people is, just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” he said.

A spokesperson for the Georgia State Patrol said they could not provide a number on how many Georgia State Patrol officers have been freed up to patrol highways and roadways because of assistance from the National Guard, but their presence has helped.

In the language of the order itself, 1,000 troops are authorized. According to a spokesperson for the National Guard, 800 members of the National Guard are currently deployed on missions around the state. Those missions include assisting with the Georgia Department of Public Health with COVID-19 testing, assisting at Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA) vaccination sites, and assisting law enforcement at the State Capitol. National Guard troops have been active in 26 counties, including Fulton and DeKalb. 

Governor’s powers 

The extent of the governor’s power during times of emergency has been an important issue for the Georgia legislature since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. The legislature met to approve emergency powers for the governor in March of 2020, which allowed Kemp to respond more quickly to the unfolding crisis than the legislature could have. 

However, even at the time some lawmakers were worried about expanding the governor’s power, according to state Rep. Betsy Holland, a Buckhead Democrat. 

“Some legislators argued that the emergency powers should have to be explicitly renewed by the legislature every 30 or 60 days, while other legislators maintained that we should allow the governor to decide for himself whether to keep extending the powers,” Holland said in an email.  “Obviously, the latter group got their way.”

A bill from this year’s legislative session, HB 358, would have required the legislature to give approval to the governor to extend a state of emergency beyond 30 days. The bill did not cross over from its original chamber to another before the 28th day of the legislative session, known as “Crossover Day,” causing it to become inactive until the session begins next year. 

As the country has seen with the now year-long COVID-19 pandemic, some emergencies have the potential to last for a very long time. That could allow for abuses of power, Holland said.

“As a state, we desperately need to either pass legislation or amend the constitution to better regulate how the governor can be stripped of emergency powers, and I firmly believe the emergency powers should have a clear sunset date that requires a legislative vote for an extension,” Holland said. “While we’re at it, we should make sure that the legislature can meet virtually to do that, so a pandemic or natural disaster couldn’t prevent the legislature from gathering to vote.”

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.