Atlanta mayor aims to hire 250 officers per year for three years
Despite facing competition from other jurisdictions, Mayor Andre Dickens said the "robust department" is attracting applicants
By Wilborn P. Nobles III
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens says the city's shortage of police officers continues to strain the Atlanta Police Department and inhibit the type of community policing he thinks will benefit the city, despite short-term successes in recruitment.
Speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Editorial Board on Thursday, Dickens said his goal of hiring 250 officers a year should net the department about 450 additional cops after three years if the city does a better job at retaining officers, and limits them leaving for other departments or to retirement.
"That's about where I think we're short," Dickens said of the 450 new officers. "And you'll start to see and feel (improvement) at 250."
Dickens said the additional officers will alleviate the stress felt within the city's six police zones and various departments like the crime lab. He said some zones only fill 11 or 12 of their 14 beats because of the officer shortage.
Joined by members of his cabinet, Dickens touched on a wide array of issues during the 90-minute session at the AJC's office, including community policing, housing and infrastructure.
Dickens stressed the city is making progress in reducing some facets of crime. He repeated news about the city's 72% homicide arrest rate, and he said there's been an increase in the aggravated assault arrest rate compared to this time last year. The mayor said he will make a decision on whether to retain or replace Police Chief Rodney Bryant soon.
"The majority of the cases are being brought to justice, but again, I'm discouraged at the fact that there's crime in the first place, that there's this many homicides," Dickens said.
As of Thursday afternoon, APD had investigated 51 homicides since Jan. 1, up from 39 this time last year. Dickens said nearly half of the city's homicides stemmed from escalated conflicts, and the other 50% comes from issues among clubs, gangs, drugs and robberies.
"I want to do community-based policing, which means getting out of your car to go walk, and you can't get out of your car if you're already covering more ground in your car then you need to, or the beat was designed for," Dickens said.
Dickens also defined in the clearest terms yet his definition of community policing, saying it involves officers forming good relationships with the owners and employees of gas stations, grocery stores, churches and other businesses.
Dickens declined to say if he's considering increases in pay for police — or other city employees — as he prepares for his first budget cycle with the City Council this summer. The city gave officers pay raises of up to 30% in 2019.
But he still faces hiring competition from jurisdictions offering even higher pay to officers. Dickens nonetheless said their "robust department" is attracting people with promises of participation in everything from foot patrol, mounted patrol, SWAT, the bomb squad, or the "war on drugs."
Dickens also acknowledged that his affordable housing goal — 20,000 new units over eight years — won't be enough to fill the massive housing deficit in Atlanta. A recent Atlanta Regional Commission study found the metro region lost nearly 60,000 affordable units over just a five-year span before the pandemic hit.
Increased housing costs, coupled with stagnant wages, are exacerbating the housing crisis, the mayor said. For many, making $15 an hour isn't enough to afford to live in the city.
"We need to continue to produce more housing in the city," Dickens said, adding that the city should continue to require developers to build for a range of incomes. "At the same time, we have to work on getting folks' incomes up."
Dickens has proposed creating the Atlanta Department of Labor to help tackle income inequality.
Dickens also said the city will need to rebuild trust with residents ahead of a May ballot referendum over whether to continue with an additional sales tax to fund $350 million in transportation improvements.
Miscalculations and a slow rollout process led to criticism of the 2016 T-SPLOST, but Dickens said overhauling the city's procurement process will be key to getting roads and sidewalks fixed more quickly. City officials recently finalized the project list ahead of the upcoming ballot referendum.
"The processes are now being looked at critically to make sure that we can do this the right way, that we will procure better, and do it timely but also with ethics," Dickens said.
In the meantime, Dickens told the AJC that he's happy with his job because he thinks his goals for the city are attainable.
"What I like most is that I'm not in a no-win situation, that I'm not in a desperation as mayor, that I'm actually in a position of capacity," Dickens said. "That feels really good."
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