“I’m going to ask the next mayor to make it mandatory that evidence about gangs are taken, so that we can prosecute those crimes correctly and get that element off of our streets," Willis said at a mayoral forum in November 2021. "If we are able to combat gang violence, we are going to be able to see crime decrease dramatically."
Now, Willis is turning those words into action and pushing the legislature to act.
11Alive's Christie Diez sat down with Willis for an exclusive interview in February 2022.
When asked how much of Georgia’s crime was related to gang activity, Willis said an alarming amount.
“Too much. Too much," she said. "More than we can even imagine because it’s all of the crimes that we don’t even know go back to the gangs.”
Willis added that, according to the GBI, up to 70% or even 90% of the state's crime could be gang-related.
"It’s not just the violence. It’s everything from car break-ins to burglaries to human trafficking to shootings," she explained. "So, all spectrum of crime is being impacted by gang violence.”
The Georgia Gang Investigators Association (GGIA) estimates there are at least 70,000 active gang members in Georgia. The FBI estimates there are 50,000 in metro Atlanta alone.
The state has one of the strictest anti-gang laws in the country, Georgia’s Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, which allows law enforcement and prosecutors to add a separate gang charge.
However, Willi said that tool is being widely underused.
“It’s absolutely not being used to the extent that it could,” she admitted. “I think you will see, at least in this county, that that is used more and more and we’re already seeing that.”
In a private letter to Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, Willis writes “of the 28 homicide prosecutions currently under indictment in our gang unit, in only five cases did APD seek a gang warrant at the outset.”
Willis added that individual officers are not to blame, calling it “systemic shortfalls” that need to be corrected.
Now, she’s hoping to do that by adding a new tool.
“What we have been doing is not working, so it is time to do something new,” Willis said. “We’re asking the legislators to make a move.”
Watch the full interview below.
The DA has suggested specific language for a bill that’s going through the legislature right now titled the Safe and Secure Georgia Act.
It would allow prosecutors to bring all the charges against an alleged gang member in one county, even if part of the crime happened in Fulton County, another part in DeKalb County, and another somewhere else in the metro.
The bill would also allow for evidence of past gang crimes, which was prohibited before.
“This will allow prosecutors to tell juries the entire story," Willis said. "The criminals don’t care that they crossed over a block and then there’s one thing that they did that occurred in DeKalb and not in Gwinnett. So, it only makes common sense."
With 25 sponsors, the bill already has a lot of support. All the current sponsors are Republicans, but Willis says that doesn’t bother her.
“It doesn’t make me feel bad at all. I wish people would really get away from all of this labeling that we do of each other,” she added.
“This is what I know: I can go to the richest community in my county and they don’t want to see crime. I can go to the poorest community in my county and they do not want to see crime. I can go to the county with the highest concentration of African American citizens and they don’t want to see crime. I can go to the part of my county with the highest population of Caucasian Americans and they do not want to see crime. No one wants crime in their community,” Willis said.
Still, she hopes some Democrats will sign on.
“I think that they will. But, I am happy to work with anyone who wants to help me in this fight against gang violence and crime,” Willis said.
She added that for too long politicians refused to admit Atlanta has a gang problem.
“'Oh no, Atlanta doesn’t have gangs.' Yes, we do,” Willis remarked against those critics. “What we know is that a gangbanger who commits a crime is six times more likely to commit a crime than any other defendant. We’ve got to stop this at the root, so I don’t know that it is common, but it’s necessary and it’s needed, and I’m certainly not the first prosecutor to do it."
One of the first to make a strong move against gangs in the metro was former DeKalb District Attorney Gwen Keyes-Fleming. Willis said she helped lay the groundwork for this new bill.
When 11Alive reached out Keyes-Fleming, she said she was proud of Willis for pushing the Safe and Secure Georgia Act.
“Improvements in public safety and the dispensation of justice in our courtrooms should not be partisan issues. This is why under my administration as district attorney, we teamed with Republicans to make needed upgrades to Georgia’s anti-gang laws and move Georgia towards the adoption of the Federal Rules of Evidence,” Keyes-Fleming wrote in a statement. “I am inspired to see that, for the most part, public interest has prevailed over party on this important bill.”
Gov. Brian Kemp has also proposed a gang prosecution unit in the attorney general’s office, which Willis said she supports, but added even that won’t be enough.
To prove how serious she is, Willis wrote every law enforcement agency in Fulton County to request they bring her cases under the anti-gang statute.
She explained it’s time to do more than talk about it.
"It’s like you’re either progressive or you’re hard on crime. What I would say is the best practice is you’re both,” Willis said.
As far as where she falls on the spectrum, Willis said she believes she's smack in the middle.
“I don’t consider myself to be a tough-on-crime prosecutor or a progressive prosecutor. I consider myself to be both. If you commit a violent crime in Fulton County, Georgia, we are going to be extremely tough. And I don’t lose any sleep about it because I think you need to be removed from our community,” she continued.
Willis said she has also met with the superintendent of Fulton County Schools to discuss services the school could put in place while making sure guns are not brought into schools.
“[Gangs are] stealing our youth from us. It’s taking our juveniles and our children and getting them into a life of crime,” Willis said.
In the letter Willis wrote to Mayor Dickens, she cites a statistic that 400,000 children are recruited into gangs every year, with Georgia among the states where juvenile gang members commit significant levels of gang crime.
“I agree the majority of crime occurs between people probably about 13 to 25 years old,” she said. “It is so much better if we try to snatch our children and put them into effective programming and positive things that they can do while being really tough on the older gang members, so they never steal our children.”
One piece that didn’t make it into the bill: state-funded gang prosecutors. Willis says she’s still holding out hope it will be added in this bill or the next.
The bill with her language is going for a vote in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 14.