Report: As coronavirus cases continue to surge and poverty increases, Atlanta councilmember pushes for bonuses for city\’s police officers

Rather than seeking to address root causes of crime, Councilmember Howard Shook wants to reward officers who stay with taxpayer dollars

Photo credit: Justin Miller, 2020.

ATLANTA — Yesterday, Fox 5 News issued a report regarding Atlanta Councilmember Howard Shook\’s most recent proposal to award Atlanta Police Department officers who stay on the force additional bonuses, which would be funded through money already in the city budget. This proposal comes at a rather destitute time for Atlanta communities as coronavirus cases continue to surge, hospital systems become more overwhelmed, eviction protections are lifted, and unemployment benefits run out.

While there is no official paper or legislation introduced to city council yet, we can likely expect Shook to introduce legislation at the next full council meeting on Dec. 7. This will then likely go to the Public Safety Committee and Financial Executive Committee on Dec. 14 and 17, respectively. The legislation would then be up for a final vote at the first full council meeting in January, if it makes it that far.

Yesterday\’s Fox 5 report doesn\’t offer much, other than stating that violent crime is increasing along with auto crime and police officers have been quitting at an alarming rate. We reached out to one of our sources in Atlanta City Council to help us break these claims down.

To begin, the standard rate for quitting officers on the Atlanta police force is about 10 or less officers per month. In September, Fox 5 reported that 36 officers quit in that month; it wasn\’t specified whether or not any of those included officers who began retirement. While this is a three- to four-fold increase in the APD, the statistic and the report doesn\’t explain the reasoning behind officers leaving the force.

Since this summer, in the wake of George Floyd and the civil rights uprisings in the city, there has been immense pressure to reform APD, defund the police department, and strengthen accountability measures between officers and the law. After former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe shot and killed 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks on the night of June 12, Atlanta communities gathered in an uproar to claim justice for another Black life lost at the hands of APD. (Brooks was certainly not the first, and justice remains to be served for Jimmy Atchison, Oscar Cain, and many others.) Moreover, the Atlanta Solidarity Fund has issued numerous reports of APD officers violently handling and mistreating protesters who were demonstrating peacefully in the streets.

Despite the immense public pressure demonstrated over the summer, Atlanta City Council and Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms did little or nothing to address dire needs for reform in the APD. To review:

Police funding received a $14M increase this year, despite major cuts in departments including health and education across the board in the State of Georgia and City of Atlanta during a global pandemic; officers received a $500 bonus the weekend after Brooks was murdered, even though a surprising amount of officers called out in what became known as the blue flue; council and the mayor criminalized the city\’s water boys; Bottoms vetoed the council\’s unanimous vote for 8 Can\’t Wait legislation, claiming that measures were already being taken to address police reform; council watered down legislation that would have created greater accountability systems between the APD and Fulton District Attorney\’s Office; council failed to pass legislation to reduce APD\’s harmful crowd dispersement tactics, including the deployment of tear gas which has been banned by the Geneva Convention; Bottoms tanked the Rayshard Brooks Bill, which sought to place $73 million in a trust fund for community programs without removing any funds from APD, claiming there was absolutely no wiggle room in the budget in light of COVID-19 concerns; and finally, Atlanta City Council did little to counter her 8 Can\’t Wait veto, which could have been overridden by a two-third vote, or her office\’s request to shut down the Rayshard Brooks Bill.

Now, as the city faces even more poverty and desolate conditions as a result of COVID-19, Councilmember Shook is requesting support from the rest of council in his proposal to pay bonuses to a department that has already seen a surplus in funding this year, from both taxpayers and outside funders like the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and the Atlanta Police Foundation. However, Shook has already acknowledged that he\’s aware money isn\’t the problem when it comes to keeping officers on the force.

As far as the claims to rising crime, our source in city council states that while murder and aggravated assaults have increased throughout the year, nearly every other crime is down. The latest crime report for this year provides more insight into these claims.

While aggravated assault charges are on the rise, it is worth noting that there used to be more classes of aggravated assault which are no longer in place. Ultimately, this means that officers can now charge people with aggravated assault for basically any kind of fight or offense, even if the subject didn\’t come in physical contact with someone. According to our source, who has asked to remain anonymous to speak more openly on the record, more than half of aggravated assault charges get reduced to simple battery charges once they make it in front of a judge. Most cases are not punitive through jail time, but rather in probation and a fine to the city.

In light of these alarming quitting rates and increasing crimes, Shook says, Someone has to do something … what is standing between us and this lawlessness is our police officers.

Councilmember Shook, who has served on Atlanta City Council for 19 years, has demonstrated a complete lack of willingness to expand the conversation to directly address the root causes of crime in Atlanta, in a time when communities need critical thinking from its leaders the most. We\’ve previously reported on Shook\’s contributions to council meetings, most notably making a fuss at the amount of public comment calls to reform APD and stop attacking peaceful protesters. This cry of lawlessness appears to be nothing more than a traditional dogwhistle to raise a call to arms from certain constituents, without providing any insight into what actually causes crime. Additionally, there is no statistical proof that increased police presence reduces crime. We do know, however, that increased resources does lessen crime.

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly a causal factor in the city\’s increase in crime this year, between communities\’ pitfall into poverty, increased stress, record-breaking numbers of unemployment, increasing evictions, and a rise of domestic abuse as a result of people being forced to stay home. Last weekend, 5,000 people lined up to get food supplied by Tyler Perry Studios last week. Some got in line 18 hours before the giveaway started. This is a great indicator of the desperation that local residents are currently experiencing; and there is still a long, cold winter ahead for which our systems are not prepared.

A closer look into the socioeconomic cause and effect of crime would show that poverty, lack of mental health resources, and lack of treatment for substance abuse and addiction are major causes to increased crime rates. Rather than criminalizing communities who are suffering and awarding a police force who is far less than capable to address these concerns, it is beyond time that local legislators explore alternative means rather than exhaustive and futile solutions.

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