Two incentive programs could help increase the Atlanta Police Department’s officer numbers and morale at a time when the city’s murder rate is at a 22-year high.
One is a proposal focused on bonuses for police officers and the other is a new initiative that zeroes in on rent/mortgage payment help for both officers and firefighters.
First, at the Atlanta City Council’s Jan. 4 meeting, District 7 Councilman Howard Shook introduced legislation calling for police officers to be given a bonus if they commit to staying with the department for a certain period of time.
The city had 157 reported murders in 2020, the highest amount since 1998. Morale with the department has been down for several years, but may have hit its lowest point in June, when more than 150 officers called out sick after two white officers were charged in the death of Rayshard Brooks, a Black suspect fatally shot by one officer while running from cops after escaping their custody during a DUI arrest.
It was the latest incident in America where a Black individual died at the hands of one or more white current or former police officers. In the Brooks case aftermath, Police Chief Erika Shields resigned.
The police force has dropped from a peak of 2,000 officers during the Kasim Reed administration (2010-17) to about 1,600 today, and Shook said 150 officers left the department in 2020. He added he proposed the legislation because “I don’t see anybody doing anything else to combat attrition.”
“And I believe, based on people I’ve spoken with, this would put a brake on a revolving door,” said Shook, whose district includes part of Buckhead. “We have a historically undermanned police force at a time when crime is the highest it’s been in a generation and the courts more closed than open. We cannot afford to have fewer officers.”
Shook’s legislation, which he said could be paid for from funds already in the city’s budget, was referred to the council’s finance/executive and public safety committees and could come back before the council for a vote later this year. He said the amount of the bonus and the period of time an officer would have to commit to staying with the department have not been determined yet because the proposal is still early in the process.
Shook added he still needs to meet with representatives of the mayor’s office, the human resources and finance departments, the police’s command staff and rank-and file-officers and other council members before moving forward with the legislation.
“I need baseline information such as vacancies, are they funded, what are our expectations to fill those vacancies over the next year or two?” he said. “That will give us some idea on available funding, which opens a second set of questions on how it will be applied. I think we need to be very careful with the city’s dollars. We’re not in good shape due to the pandemic and are dipping into reserves.
“Who’s going to be eligible? Under what conditions? I’m under the idea that it’s not a good idea to bribe officers to stay if they’re close to retirement. What we’ve got to address is the five-, 10- or 15-year (officers). … They know the city and they know the processes. We’d love them to stay and maximize those benefits and be happier.”
Second, the Buckhead Community Improvement District and the Atlanta Police Foundation have proposed giving Atlanta police officers and firefighters $650 a month to help with rent or mortgage payments if they agree to live in Buckhead. This proposal is an expansion on the two organization’s original plan to give first responders $3,000 a year for the same purpose.
“Initially it was $2,000 from the (district) and $1,000 from the police foundation, but no one took us up on the offer. … We’re marketing it now,” said Jim Durrett, the district’s executive director. “… We started thinking about it probably about eight years ago.
“It was for two reasons: number one, workforce housing is a really important issue, and figuring out ways that folks can afford to live in the community they work is a good thing. (Number two), if a police officer or firefighter lives in the community they serve in, then relationships can be established between the public and the public servant.”
Durrett said he wasn’t sure if any first responders had signed up for the program yet, though it’s not likely. He deferred questions about that topic to Livable Buckhead Executive Director Denise Starling, who is managing the program. Email and voicemail messages left with Starling seeking that information were not immediately returned.
These two incentive programs are not the first ones proposed or implemented to help keep Atlanta police officers on the force in the past seven years.
In June 2018, the council approved a 3.1% salary increase for sworn police and fire personnel and recruits as part of the city’s fiscal 2019 budget. The pay hike would apply to recruits and sworn personnel who receive a satisfactory performance evaluation.
At the time, Vince Champion, the Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers and director of the Atlanta Police Department’s union, said the raise helps but is not enough to help the department accomplish its goals.
In early 2014, in a program similar to the one the district and foundation have partnered on, the Buckhead Coalition and the foundation started an initiative in which they encouraged uniformed police officers with the department’s Zone 2 substation to live in Buckhead. Each participating officer would get $3,000 a year, with $2,000 from the coalition and $1,000 from the foundation.
The program, which included 16 officers, ended in mid-2015, then-coalition President Sam Massell said, when the total budget was expended. Durrett, who replaced Massell as the coalition’s president in 2019, said the program has not been restarted and likely won’t be in the future.
In a Jan. 13 interview, Champion said he’s only heard about the police officer bonus incentive program but is in favor of both.
“I believe giving incentives for people to stay is a good idea, but if we’re strictly speaking of Atlanta, based on everything that’s gone on, they only need to give the officers support,” he said. “If the officers know they have a chief of police and council that stands behind them, they really don’t need the incentives.”
When asked to clarify what “support” means, Champion said, “Support really comes in that just follow the SOPs (standard operating procedures) and the guidelines on officers. Nobody’s saying don’t prosecute officers if they commit a crime. But just do it (the proper way).”