a black man in uniform and a white man in a suit sit at a table in a meeting room
Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant (left) and John Keen, the police department's chief operating officer, testify at the House Public Safety Committee meeting. (Screenshot from committee meeting)

ATLANTA — Atlanta police officials assured members of the Georgia Legislature they are adding cameras and hiring officers as fast as they can to cope with the city’s surging crime rate, but they remain seriously understaffed. 

The Georgia House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee heard testimony last week from the chief and the chief operating officer of the Atlanta police department as part of the committee’s ongoing inquiry into Atlanta’s crime, which has increased 11 percent overall in the last year.

John Keen, Atlanta police’s chief operating officer, said the force is hiring on average five new officers a week. The department is authorized for 2,500 employees while currently employing an estimated 1,700. He said he aims to maintain a goal of an 150% increase in new hires starting from July 1.

Keen also said funding from the American Rescue Plan Act has been used for Operation Shield, a camera system that helps officers track activity on major streets and highways. The city has added 300 new cameras through this program.

Police Chief Rodney Bryant told the committee that these measures were just some strategies the department was using to deal with its understaffing.

“Any effort to readily or better identify (criminal activity) to help us minimize what we’re seeing would be helpful,” he said.

The serious attrition of law enforcement personnel can be remedied through a variety of measures, Peter Skandalakis, the executive director for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, told the committee.

He said fortifying the career path for seasoned employees is a crucial first step in addressing the crime rate. He noted that most private sector jobs offered better benefits and higher pay, compared to the understaffed and overworked public sector today. 

“There is no one cause that’s caused the surge in crime rate,” said Skandalakis. “You can’t blame it on the pandemic, you can’t blame it on guns, you can’t blame it all on the criminal justice system, you can’t blame it all on the police, and you can’t blame it all on the riots.”

Tension between city police and lawmakers appeared to have eased since the committee met this summer. Rep. Alan Powell, a Republican from Hartwell, asked if the police force is now starting to feel more supported by the elected members. 

“Absolutely,” said Bryant. “I don’t think that we will ever agree on the same things all the time, but I think when the rubber meets the road we are all in alignment.”

Rep. Becky Evans, a Democrat from Atlanta, suggested community groups that support the  police might host events like lunches designed to boost officers’ morale and prevent exhaustion.

 “In my 33 years in law enforcement, morale has always been an issue,” Bryant said. “I do believe from where we were just a year ago to where we are today our morale is improving.”

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