ATLANTA -- You can tell it’s getting late this election season in the mayor’s race. Candidates are promising to hire more police officers – even though it’s been a very difficult promise to keep over the last twenty or more years.
Hiring and retaining police has been a real struggle in cities nationwide, including Atlanta. Political promises to hire more cops are easy to make but not so easy to keep.
The good news is that the crime rate in Atlanta has generally dropped over the last decade. The not-so good news is that Atlanta has had trouble meeting its goals in hiring police officers.
In 2009, Kasim Reed’s most memorable promise was to put 2000 police officers on the street in Atlanta. In 2009 there were less than 1300 police. In 2013, Reed proclaimed the promise kept. But by late 2016 it was back down to about 1850. Now it’s as low as 1400 according to the police union. The city was unable to provide a specific number.
"It’s going to be awhile before we can turn the tide on this," acknowledged Cathy Woolard, a mayoral candidate who has promised to expand the force of street cops to 2000. Mayoral candidate Mary Norwood says the same thing. She has the support of the police union. And Ceasar Mitchell has just released a TV ad, also promising to hire more cops. "You and I know what to do. I’ll put more cops on the beat, where they belong," Mitchell says in the commercial.
"Atlanta is a high pressure law enforcement job," said Frank Rotondo, of the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs.
He said that police department recruiting suffers when the economy booms – and that big city police get hurt by it more than smaller departments.
"The probability of using physical force or deadly physical force is higher in cities like Atlanta," Rotondo said. "That’s tough to ask of any one individual, even one who has a love of law enforcement."
Rotondo says Atlanta also has a generous retirement package, which drives up attrition. Yet the challenges don't stop candidates for mayor from promising more cops. "It’s absolutely a tall order," Woolard said, "which is why we have to stay focused on it because public safety is a mayor’s primary concern."
Many candidates have done more than just promise more cops. Woolard wants to replace the city's police training academy to attract higher quality recruits. Keisha Lance Bottoms, endorsed by Reed, makes no numerical promises to increase the police force on her web site; but rather promises "smarter" recruiting and retention.