It was the worst of times, it was the most dangerous of times. Violent crime is at or approaching 50-year highs in large population centers all across the United States. What is, however, making a difference is how each of those cities chooses to respond to the crime surge. Today we will look at two, and I’m pretty familiar with both... my hometown of Atlanta, and my first stop on my nearing four-decade career, for just under four years in Macon, in the heart of the mid-state.
Jump ahead to 2021, a year and a half pandemic, and a prior summer of racial justice protests and awakened discussions of equity, and both cities are struggling with a wave of violent crime and homicides. In Atlanta, the mayor follows another weekend of record fatal shootings with a call to establish an Anti-Crime Task Force. Several months later, their first recommendations have been made, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is choosing to follow several of those.
They include — the creation of a Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction, investing $70 million in federal CARES Act funding into nine initiatives to fight crime; tracking violent repeat offenders and expanding re-entry social services; supporting blight remediation, code enforcement and property development; hiring 250 more police officers by July 2022 and installing 250 more security cameras across the city by December 2021; and creating youth councils, working with faith leaders and investing in mental health services to support communities.
The elimination of cash bail and courts closed by COVID-19 have allowed a rash of repeat offenders to commit crime after crime and simply sign themselves out at the Fulton County Detention Center. Quoting the editorial page of the area newspaper of record on the day the mayor announced her plans, “Crime Panel Didn’t Go Far Enough.”
And yet 70 miles south, with 150,000 to Atlanta’s 500,000 plus, there is a community attempting to do more with less. Macon/Bibb County has a consolidated government and a new mayor, Lester Miller, elected as this pandemic began to wane. Miller is white, not a Macon native, but attended seven Bibb County schools in seven years, moving again and again with his parents who both worked but still struggled to afford the basics. Miller was the first in his family to graduate from high school, later college, and law school. After establishing himself in the community, Miller was elected to two terms on the Bibb County School Board. He ran for mayor promising to put more cops on the streets of Macon and Bibb County. Local elections in Macon/Bibb are nonpartisan and Miller is clear to share when asked, he is neither Democrat nor Republican.
“I can only control what I can in Macon-Bibb County as the mayor, and we’re going to do right by people regardless of partisan politics,” says Mayor Miller.
Public safety tops the agenda at present on both sides of the aisle and the community, despite 25% of the population living below the federal poverty line. As mayor, the first budget increases went to the Office of Sheriff and for much-needed repairs and improvements to the Bibb County Jail.
In other jurisdictions, the sheriff and chief of police often jockey for resources; here Sheriff David Davis, who has been with the office since 1979 and sheriff since 2012, will helm what Miller says will be anti-crime efforts that will be partially sheriff-led and partially community-led.
Macon-Bibb County is receiving $75 million from the American Rescue Plan. The Macon-Bibb Commission is spending almost all of the first $18 million received on improving neighborhoods where crime is most pervasive. A temporary homeless shelter was made permanent, a $2 million violence prevention program is underway, an additional $5 million was allocated to clear away some of the community’s 2,000 blighted properties. Expenditures also include opening no-cost mental health clinics to provide support services for the homeless and drug-addicted in these same communities.
Though the commission is officially nonpartisan, it is politically and racially split. The mayor pro-tem, Seth Clark is a Democrat, who has worked at the state and national levels for Democrats, including John Lewis, Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter, but he likes this better.
“I’ve never seen a spirit of cooperation be as successful as it is locally right now. I don’t know if it’s a honeymoon period. I don’t care. It really feels good,” says Clark.
Good luck and prayers this works for Macon and Bibb County, and that leaders in other communities are paying attention as well.