The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — After another weekend of headlines about crime in Atlanta, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp laid down a new marker with a plan to make $5 million in emergency funds available to state law enforcement efforts to target criminal activity.
The relatively meager amount of money he announced this week wouldn’t normally turn heads. But it 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.
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 broad new powers. The first of a series of public hearings begins Wednesday to determine whether state troopers should help police Atlanta.
“Atlanta has a crime problem and doesn’t seem to be able to bring it under control,” the speaker said.
Though most serious crime fell in 2020, the number of homicides in the city surged, making it the deadliest year in decades. A spate of shootings this year has led some intown residents to bolt for the suburbs.
Much of the criticism has fallen on Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance 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.
But it hasn’t blunted the backlash from liberals and conservatives who have demanded the mayor pursue a more assertive 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,” Miller said. “We cannot consider reducing money dedicated to public safety — we have to raise the pay, increase the training and be more committed.”
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.”
For Kemp, an emphasis on public safety is only expected to rise 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. And Kemp is particularly eager to shore up support among conservatives upset that he didn’t try to overturn Donald Trump’s November defeat in the presidential election.
In recent weeks, the first-term governor has touted his administration’s initiatives to target human trafficking and street racing and promoted tweets from the Department of Public Safety that listed a state task force’s arrest metrics over the weekend.
The $5 million in new funding, he said, 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.”
Ralston, the Georgia speaker, has said the hearings that begin Wednesday could result in legislative proposals and new budget appropriations to beef up public safety efforts. Some members of the House Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security are skeptical.
“The city of Atlanta is boosting spending on law enforcement measures, and it seems to me the state should support the city with resources if requested,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta. “I don’t want this to be a grandstanding exercise — and I’ll call it out if it is.”
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