'We Are A Resilient City': Atlanta Mayor Talks Crime, Police Morale, Vaccine Passports, Voting Law
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms says police morale is "improving significantly" after it hit a low last summer and that she is confident the city will get to the "other side" in bringing crime down.
"We are a resilient city," Bottoms said.
She also blasted the state's controversial new elections law, saying, "It is not good for Atlanta; it is not good for the state."
Bottoms spoke on Wednesday with GPB host Rickey Bevington as part of GPB's "Ask The Mayor" series on Facebook Live.
In the wide-ranging interview, the mayor spoke on everything from vaccine passports to police morale, from rising crime to her thoughts on Buckhead possibly becoming its own city.
"I think it is a terrible idea," she said of Buckhead seceding from Atlanta.
Here are highlights from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
On morale within the Atlanta Police Department
BOTTOMS: "As I understand it, morale is improving. Morale was down last summer significantly for several reasons. Your audience probably remembers I fired some officers for excessive use of force on top of what we saw play out in our streets. Our police officers were under attack, literally and physically. We saw it on television May 29. So morale was down with APD, but it's also been down across the country.
"That being said, my understanding is that morale is improving significantly with APD. ...Time and space helps a lot, I think, and I think the further we are removed from what happened last summer, I think the better it is for morale with APD and public safety across the country. So we are getting there. We still have work to do. And every opportunity I get, I remind our officers that I value them. [That] is the reason I asked for the 30% pay increase.
"And, you know, recognizing that money is not everything if you don't feel wanted and valued, but that was my gesture to APD to say that I value the work that they did each and every day, work that I could never do. And I also recognize that they were struggling to make ends meet. And the police union didn't endorse me when I ran for mayor. And there would have been some who wouldn't have even entertained the discussion. But I want to do the right thing, because it was the right thing to do. And that is what I will continue to do with our officers.
"Last summer was a tough summer for all of us, but as a leader, you make the decision that you think is the right decision.
"And the moment if you go back to May and June of last year, there was — you know, it was like watching a movie — an out of body experience — to see what was happening in Atlanta and across the country. So as a leader, you have to make decisions. And I made decisions that I thought were in the best interests of our city. And I still firmly believe had I not made those decisions, that for as awful as things were in this city, I firmly believe they would have been significantly worse."
... "As I'm talking with officers, my understanding it was a blow to officers when I fired the officers. But the straw that broke the camel's back was the indictment by the district attorney [Paul Howard]. And if you remember, last summer, what I said about that is, 'You've got 25 other, at least, use of force cases sitting on your desk. What about those?'
"So I took exception to the speed in which these indictments came. ... Being clear, I don't know if those officers should have been indicted or not, but it didn't follow the normal process."
On rising crime in Atlanta
BOTTOMS: "I understand that [people] are afraid. And I have an 18-year-old who is out more than I would like. And each time he walks out the door, I say a prayer over him because statistically he is the one who would be a victim of gun violence in our city. And so I understand that people are afraid.
"I would also say that we have experienced a pandemic. We've never experienced that in our lifetime. We've gone through a social justice movement where people have witnessed men being murdered, simply, some believe, because of the color of their skin. There's a lot of anxiety, there's a lot of depression. There is a lot of anguish surrounding the pandemic, the social justice movement. George Floyd, then — and the list goes on. It's what I call a covert crime wave.
"But what I know is that this is not the first time our country has faced a challenge like this. This is not the first time we've faced an uptick in crime. And we'll get to the other side of it.
"So — and it's not wishing it away. It's us taking affirmative steps to get to the other side. So we are expanding our camera network in the city. I've committed to hiring 250 new [police] officers over the next fiscal year. We are building a new public safety facility to make sure that as we talk about this training that our officers need, that they can do it in a place that they don't have to hold their noses when they walk into the building.
"We're just doing things like offering stipends, contemplating offering stipends to our police officers when they buy homes or live in homes in communities in our city. We have cut the ribbon on our second @Promise Youth Center. Another is in the pipeline. I just identified potentially another site. So we're taking all of the steps. We're expanding Cure Violence.
"We're going to get to the other side of it. We're going to get control of the violence on our streets. But it's tough right now and it's tough in Atlanta. It's tough across the country. But I know that we're going to get to the other side of it because we've done it before."
On Senate Bill 202
BOTTOMS: "For city of Atlanta voters, many of whom are African American voters, it is a challenge because there are limitations on accessing absentee ballots and limitations on where drop boxes can be placed. And we know Fulton County and DeKalb County always have long lines for voting.
"It gives the legislature an opportunity, through the State Election Board, that they now will control to come in and take over elections in Fulton County and DeKalb County — two counties that primarily vote for Democratic candidates ... their elections can be taken over by a Republican-led legislature.
"That goes against everything that we think of about fair elections. And there are layers of challenges.
"So, it is not good for Atlanta; it is not good for the state. Georgia is constantly ranked as one of the best states to do business in. And the irony of it is that we reopen during the pandemic per the governor's orders under the guise of economic recovery — and in one signature, we've lost that recovery."
On the idea of Buckhead forming its own city
BOTTOMS: "I think creating a city of Buckhead is a bad idea. Buckhead is a valued part of Atlanta, an important part of Atlanta, and has been for decades. If the problem is crime, you're not going to stop crime by creating a new city. What are you going to do, wall it off and keep all the residents locked in their houses?
"... That doesn't solve the crime issue. I would rather this energy and this focus be given on how we can address crime together, how we can work together. So I think it is a terrible idea."
On vaccine passports
BOTTOMS: "I think that is a very interesting concept. I think that private businesses certainly should have the right to ask for people to show that they have been vaccinated. I think that it's a good opportunity for us to, perhaps, try it out as a pilot program.
"But if it is a matter of ensuring that people can safely [be] in a business and not wear their mask, I don't think it's too much to ask for people to show that they've been vaccinated. We ask our kids to show vaccination records before they are enrolled in school.
"I know this is not a concept that we are comfortable with as adults, but college students have to show vaccinations before they can enroll and move into a dorm. So I think this is something that, if we want to be able to operate as if things are normal, then people are going to have to be vaccinated and they're going to have to prove that they've been vaccinated.
"But I do think it would be helpful if we perhaps tried it as a pilot program and see how it works and then expand it from there. I know it can be very difficult for something just to be thrust upon the public all at once. But if people really want to get back to life before 2020, I think it's certainly helpful."
Watch the full interview by clicking here.