ATLANTA -- A legislative committee hearing Wednesday to begin exploring violent crime in Georgia turned into a debate over “broken windows” policing, which focuses on improving the appearance of neighborhoods to discourage crime.

The crime wave in Atlanta that began last summer can be traced in part to a deterioration of the city’s look and feel, state Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell, chairman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said.

“There’s garbage flowing down the street,” he said. “There’s graffiti. There are people living and sleeping everywhere. There’s aggressive panhandling. We’ve got to come together to fix this.”

Butch Ayers, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said blight fosters violent crime.

“It creates an atmosphere of lack of commitment, attention and public safety,” he said.

Ayers suggested a return to mandatory minimum prison sentences for using a firearm in the commission of a crime would help reduce the revolving door of repeat offenders frustrating police chiefs around the state.

Mandatory minimum sentences were popular during the 1990s, when state legislatures and Congress took away judicial discretion over sentencing by passing laws requiring minimum sentences for a host of crimes.

But Sen. Kim Jackson, D-Stone Mountain, said broken windows policing and mandatory minimum sentences have been shown to lead to mass incarceration that targets low-income minority communities.

“If we return to those older policies, we will return to an attack on black, Brown and poor citizens of our state,” she said.

Several witnesses who testified Wednesday as the Senate committee launched an expected series of hearings on rising crime said the best way to address the problem is boosting police presence.

Col. Chris Wright, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said hiring enough law enforcement officers to accomplish that goal is a challenge. He said salaries aren’t high enough to attract recruits willing to do a difficult job.

“These front-line officers deal with the worst of humanity,” he said. “The salary has never been appealing for them to do the things they’re asked to do.”

Wright said recruiting has become an even tougher task since the “Defund the Police” movement began last summer as an offshoot of civil rights protests in cities across America.

Wright said the state patrol began a trooper training school last month with 71 recruits, well short of the goal of 100. Today, that cohort is down to just 49, he said.

But Wright told the committee Georgia’s new Crime Suppression Unit is making progress.

Since the multijurisdictional agency formed in April, the unit has made 12,208 vehicle stops and issued 8,503 citations, he said. Those stops led to the arrests of 212 fugitives – including 16 murder suspects – and the recovery of 67 stolen weapons and 161 stolen vehicles.

Vic Reynolds, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said the Crime Suppression Unit is an example of a growing partnership among law enforcement agencies that is starting to pay off.

“We probably have the best relationships we’ve had in a long, long time,” he said. “We can pick up the phone and work with [each other] day in and day out.”

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