Amidst an increase in crime in the city of Atlanta, public safety has become a key issue in the city and in surrounding metro communities.
Lately, many of those communities have taken measures to find and retain more police officers and to keep crime numbers low, including increasing salaries for officers and boosting police budgets. But is increasing police spending the best way to decrease crime or strengthen public safety, or are there other initiatives governments could also focus on?
A 2020 Politico report found that while studies have shown an increase in police officers decreases instances of crime, increases in other factors like healthcare access and social services have been shown to do the same. The report found that the extent to which increased police spending makes for decreasing crime rates is unclear.
Reporter Newspapers spoke with local officials for more detail on how governments have been addressing public safety issues in the community.
On Sept. 8, the Atlanta City Council approved a controversial $90 million public safety training facility, nicknamed “Cop City” by opponents. The facility plans call for a mock town, classroom space, a firing range, a firefighting drill tower, space for a helicopter to land in case of emergency, and more.
The facility will be located on the old Atlanta Prison Farm property on Key Road. Critics of the facility say supporters are falsely claiming it will help stop the city’s current crime wave.
“We now see the manifestation of what happens when the government moves ahead of the population that is trusting them to keep them engaged,” said Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong during the Sept. 8 meeting when the facility was approved. “This facility will not be built for another couple of years. To conflate the issue of building this facility with an automatic reduction in crime is irresponsible.”
During the 17-hour long public comment section of the Sept. 8 meeting, 70% of the callers who spoke were against the facility.
When asked for a comment on the training facility and how it might serve to improve public safety, a spokesperson for the Atlanta Police Foundation referred Reporter Newspapers to a website with updates about the public safety training center.
“AFP continues to receive citizen input from nearby neighborhoods through the Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, created by the City Council, which will help guide final design and construction,” reads the website.
The first phase of the center is expected to open in late 2023.
Atlanta’s future policy direction when it comes to crime will depend on the next mayor. Atlanta’s municipal runoff elections will be held on Nov. 30, where candidates Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens will face off for mayor. Results of the runoff weren’t available in time for print publication, but both candidates have made crime a large part of their campaigns.
At a Sept. 28 meeting, the Brookhaven City Council voted to raise the housing allowance for Brookhaven police officers from $600 to $800 in an attempt to “continue to attract and retain high-performance talent within the sworn police officer ranks,” according to the ordinance.
“I think every employer is going through this, having difficulty finding people,” said City Manager Christian Sigman. “We periodically look at our salaries and non-compensation benefits to make sure one, we’re competitive … We’re an expensive place to live, and we’re competing with other places that are expensive places to live.”
The Brookhaven Police Department also recently started a Drone First Responder program, which dispatches drones to possible crime or incident scenes first so on-the-ground responders can have a better idea of what sort of situation they are responding to. Brookhaven police spoke to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) about the best ways to consider privacy and safety issues when implementing the program, but the ACLU still had questions about the program’s necessity.
In April, the City Council approved plans for a federal grant, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which aims to assist economically disadvantaged areas of the city. One of the projects that falls under the grant’s umbrella is “Neighborhood Safety.” According to the CDBG plan, this project aims to put money towards neighborhood programs and activities that will help improve public safety.
Sigman said the city has not yet implemented the grant plans.
In Dunwoody’s 2022 budget, which the City Council approved on Oct. 25, the city increased the starting salary for police officers with a high school diploma from $44,567 to $46,350. The starting salary for officers with master’s degrees is up from $48,317 to $50,100, and the council also approved a hiring salary scale based on education and experience for these positions moving forward.
Also included in Dunwoody’s 2022 budget is the use of $105,000 for the addition of a new code enforcement officer, making for three in total.
City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher provided more details about the scale of the pay increases that Dunwoody has approved for police officers recently, clarifying that Dunwoody police officers and sergeants received on average a 10% salary increase in October. Earlier In March of 2021, officers received what’s called a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) in the amount of 2%. In January of 2022, officers and sergeants will receive another 3% market adjustment pay increase.
“The recent pay adjustments approved by the City Council further confirmed the Council’s continued commitment to attracting and retaining the best police officers possible,” said Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan in an emailed statement.
In October of 2020, Sandy Springs officials announced the city completed a $10.9 million purchase for a new public safety building. The city hired a construction manager for the building, which will be located at 620 Morgan Falls Road, in September of this year.
In a previous interview, Sandy Springs Police Chief Kenneth DeSimone said the police department’s current headquarters has a lot of issues, and he believed a new building would help with recruitment.
“If you’re a 22 [or] 23-year-old young man or young woman straight out of college, straight out of the military or in your first big job, you want to go somewhere that’s nice,” DeSimone said.
In September of this year, the Sandy Springs City Council approved an additional 20% pay increase for lower ranking officers. In November, the council also approved an application for a $1,000 one-time pay supplement for full-time law enforcement officers, EMS personnel and firefighters.
“This historic pay raise serves as a great investment for the future, as research indicates that police officers with college degrees are less likely to use lethal force and are subjects of fewer citizen complaints,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul in an emailed statement. “From a retention standpoint, the current salaries offered by the Sandy Springs Police Department can now directly compete with those salaries offered by the private sector.”
Paul said the city expects the Sandy Springs Police Department to be fully staffed by Jan. 1, 2021.