Police funding, trust in Georgia focus of talk by law enforcement leaders, NAACP

Panelists in a virtual talk led by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak discussed criminal justice issues in Georgia on Aug. 25, 2020. (Screenshot of event)

How to rebuild trust in Georgia communities between police officers and local residents was a focus of talks Tuesday between representatives from metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state chapter of the NAACP.

Spearheaded by U.S. Attorney BJay Pak of the Northern District of Georgia, the virtual town hall-style talk touched on how officer-involved shootings are investigated, what can be done to improve officer training and the impact of calls for reduced police funding in local communities across the country.

“We have to acknowledge that right now we’re hurting,” Pak said. “We have to show some empathy and some patience, condemn the violence and talk to each other to find a common solution that all of us can agree with and buy into.”

The talk was held amid a backdrop of continuing protests against police brutality and racial injustice sparked by the officer-caused killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in late May and the local arrests of two men involved in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Protesters have also decried the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer in June shortly after nationwide protests gained steam. His killing prompted the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief at the time.

And new protests broke out in Kenosha, Wis., Sunday night after 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police while trying to get into his SUV as his three children inside the vehicle looked on.

Several communities nationwide have pressed for reducing funds for local police departments in recent months, marking a policy that has drawn sharp denouncement from many politicians including President Donald Trump.

James Woodall, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Georgia chapter, said the conversation around police funding requires more nuance than a wholesale call for fewer law enforcement dollars.

He said funding should be driven by local decisions based on the needs of individual communities, not by political talking points on either side of the partisan divide.

“We have to be having these conversations about what’s happening on the ground and not listen to the national voices and the national movements that are trying to underwrite what’s actually happening at the grassroots level,” Woodall said.

Chief Rodney Bryant, who now heads the Atlanta Police Department in an interim capacity, said he disagrees with efforts to reduce police funding given the increased resources departments like his will need to improve training. But he agreed funding decisions should be kept strictly at the local level.

“I think it’s important to recognize that it should lie with the community itself to make that determination,” Bryant said.

Bryant added he aims to have Atlanta officers evaluated more regularly to identify potential training shortcomings and to incorporate peer intervention in training programs so that it is ingrained in officers to report misconduct from their colleagues, rather than turn a blind eye for fear of being ostracized.

“You will have to do it,” Bryant said of peer intervention. “And if you don’t, you will be held accountable.”

Bryant also backed efforts by state lawmakers to evaluate whether Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law should be changed, calling it “a very dangerous situation for both parties, especially when it goes wrong.”

Chief James Conroy, who heads up the Roswell Police Department, echoed remarks from others during Tuesday’s talk that local jurisdictions need more recourse to assist persons with mental health issues via professional services, rather than by calling police.

To that end, Conroy also highlighted the importance for citizens to involve themselves more in community engagement in order to better partner with law enforcement agencies and identify specific, local points of improvement for police to make.

“Relationships are the key to successful and effective law enforcement,” Conroy said. “If we don’t have strong relationships with our community built on trust and transparency, we’re going to fail.”

Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, whose office is prosecuting the two men arrested in the Arbery fatal shooting, noted communication between law enforcement and many different community groups is critical to build trust between officers and residents.

“It really takes all of us recognizing what our blind spots are,” Holmes said.

Legislature gives final OK to ballot measure protecting dedicated funds

ATLANTA – Georgia voters will decide this fall whether to require that dedicated state funds be spent on their intended purpose.

The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to put the proposed constitutional amendment on the statewide November ballot, giving final passage to a measure that originated in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Committing dedicated state money such as Georgia’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds to their intended use was a longstanding priority of the late state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died unexpectedly last November. As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and later the Rules Committee, Powell opposed the legislative practice of diverting those monies into the state’s general fund budget absent a financial emergency.

“It would bring a level of accountability to these fees and truth in taxation back to the dedication of these fees,” Rep. Andrew Welch, R-McDonough, said on the House floor last week.

Although the Senate at one point in this year’s session favored limiting the legislation to the Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds, senators on Monday agreed to a House proposal applying the constitutional amendment to all dedicated revenues derived from state fees or taxes.

The legislation includes substantial limits to make sure dedicated funds don’t grow too large and can be put to general use in emergencies.

Under the constitutional amendment, dedicated funds could not exceed 1% of total state revenues from the previous year. In a financial emergency, the governor and General Assembly would have the authority to temporarily suspend the dedication of funds.

“This is true middle ground in the appropriations process,” Welch said.

As a constitutional amendment, the legislation does not go to the governor to be signed into law. Its passage Monday guarantees its placement on the general election ballot Nov. 3.

Gov. Kemp inks ethylene oxide crackdown

Georgia Sen. Brian Strickland

ATLANTA – Manufacturers that use the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide face new restrictions in Georgia under legislation Gov. Brian Kemp has signed into law.

Senate Bill 426 was among a flurry of 40 bills Kemp signed on Wednesday, the legal deadline for the governor to sign or veto measures the General Assembly passed during this year’s session.

Ethylene oxide is used primarily to sterilize medical equipment, a need that has garnered a great deal of attention during the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, requires manufacturers that use ethylene oxide to report any waste spills or gas releases to the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) within 24 hours. The director of the EPD then must post the information on the agency’s  website.

The need for tighter regulation of ethylene oxide became apparent last winter after public concerns were raised over unreported releases of the chemical at a Sterigenics plant in Smyrna and a facility in Covington operated by BD Bard.

The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the state Senate and House of Representatives, with strong support from the Cobb and Newton county legislative delegations.

Also on Wednesday, Kemp signed a constitutional amendment calling for a statewide referendum in November on whether to require that dedicated state funds be spent on their intended purpose.

Committing dedicated state money such as Georgia’s Solid Waste and Hazardous Waste trust funds to their intended use was a longstanding priority of the late state Rep. Jay Powell, R-Camilla, who died unexpectedly last November.

Another measure Kemp signed on the final day for bill signing will reserve a permanent slot in annual state budgets for the funding of freight rail improvements.

Opponents had urged the governor to veto the bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, because it could be used to put state funding toward privately owned “short-line” freight railroads, not just those owned by the state.

While the legislation authorizes the Georgia Department of Transportation to fund freight rail projects, this year’s tight state budget doesn’t contain any money for that purpose.

Senate race in Georgia gaining steam past the 100-day point

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler (left), U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (center) and Rev. Raphael Warnock (right) are competing in the Nov. 3 special election.

Battle lines are being drawn in the race to fill the remaining two years of retired U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s Senate term with less than 100 days left until Election Day in November.

U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., who was appointed to hold the seat in December, has squared off with Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., over criminal justice issues and their personal backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Rev. Raphael Warnock has homed in on health care and voting rights issues, both figuring as major policy areas for Democrats across the country.

Above all looms the coronavirus pandemic, which has prompted tough debate on how to keep Georgians safe without wrecking the economy.

Nearly two dozen candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for the Senate special election on Nov. 3, a free-for-all contest in which candidates from all parties will be on the same ballot.

On the Republican side, candidates Loeffler and Collins are hustling to scoop up marquee endorsements from conservative groups and political leaders as they jab each other with campaign attacks.

Each has drawn support from local law enforcement officials, conservative groups and prominent state and national Republican leaders following Loeffler’s appointment by Gov. Brian Kemp in December to hold the Senate seat and Collins’ decision to jump into the race in January.

Loeffler, an Atlanta businesswoman running her first political campaign, has cast herself as an outsider candidate compared to the four-term Congressman Collins – though both have grounded their campaigns in supporting gun ownership, opposing abortion and backing President Donald Trump.

“With significant advantages in resources, infrastructure and grassroots support, our campaign is continuing to build momentum toward a big win,” said Loeffler’s communications director, Stephen Lawson.

Collins, a U.S. Air Force Reserve chaplain who served in the Georgia House before joining Congress, has embraced his legislative experience while lobbing criticism at Loeffler’s use of her wealth in the campaign and fending off attacks on his record as a former criminal defense attorney.

“I’ve stood for the Constitution as a military officer,” Collins said Thursday. “I’ve stood for the Constitution as an attorney representing the values of this community and representing the values of this state.”

Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, quickly drew endorsements from a slate of top Democratic state and national lawmakers and party favorites like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.

He has sought to emphasize popular Democratic stances on expanding health-care coverage and voting-rights protections in recent weeks as COVID-19 continues battering Georgia and months of protests over police brutality and racial injustice carry on.

“It’s not about the personalities who are running,” Warnock said recently. “We’re seeing a moment unlike anything we’ve ever seen in our lifetime that whoever you decide to vote for can literally decide who lives and who dies.”

As the race steams ahead, differences have emerged between the candidates on how to best tackle the health and economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among the most pressing issues amid the pandemic is what to do about the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit millions of out-of-work Americans have received since March, which is set to expire this weekend.

Loeffler and Collins have echoed congressional Republican leaders who oppose keeping the $600 benefit as is, arguing many businesses have struggled to bring employees back to work amid unemployment benefits that may be higher than their regular paychecks.

And both candidates have said they would prioritize sending more federal aid to schools, hospitals and businesses struggling to rebound and purchase protective equipment.

But while Loeffler has not said whether she would support a reduced weekly benefit, Collins has been unequivocal.

“If the unemployment insurance is something that is still there, make it as small as possible and make it end as quickly as possible,” Collins said at a recent campaign stop.

For her part, Loeffler has said she wants to weigh proposals on benefit amounts before taking a position and emphasized the need to bolster state unemployment trust funds.

“That’s the first thing, how do we help states make sure that they can meet the need at that level,” Loeffler said on Monday. “And then I think we’d have to look at what that additional federal level of funding would be needed.”

Warnock has urged extending the $600 benefit going forward and called for helping prop up unemployed workers via expanded health-care coverage, particularly for Medicaid in Georgia.

He has also tied the issue to bids by Republican lawmakers to trim federal spending and shrink taxes, framing those moves as “an effort to renegotiate the social contract to starve the government to death” that he argues has hamstrung the long-term pandemic response.

“This idea that you wouldn’t have resources, a social safety network, to respond in a crisis like this is the logical outcome of that kind of move,” Warnock said recently. “And so I will absolutely stand up as United States senator and argue that working people, middle-class people, deserve their fair shake.”

The race looks to intensify in the coming weeks as the candidates begin pouring campaign funds into television ads and social-media spots.

Loeffler will have the largest bank by far to pay for ads and other marketing, having already loaned her campaign $15 million from her own personal money. Warnock raised around $4.4 million through June, while Collins reeled in roughly $3.8 million.

In mid-July, Loeffler unloaded a campaign ad criticizing Collins’ stint as a defense attorney in Gainesville, noting his firm took on several clients facing gang, drug trafficking and assault charges.

Collins dismissed the ad, stressing his firm was appointed by the courts to defend the indigent clients shown in the ad.

A week later, Collins released his own ad highlighting controversial stock transactions Loeffler made following a closed-door briefing on the coronavirus in January.

Loeffler has said those trades were done by a third-party advisor without her input and noted the U.S. Justice Department did not produce evidence of insider trading before closing an investigation into her transactions.

And Warnock, who has held off so far on in-person campaigning due to the virus, has leaned on social media to air his views on voting rights and health care.

In recent videos, Warnock has pressed both Loeffler and Collins to state their positions on restoring certain election oversight rules to the Voting Rights Act taken away by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 ruling, and on proposals to repeal a key coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act.

The weeks ahead may also settle whether any of the 17 other candidates in the race drop out to help boost chances for Loeffler, Collins or Warnock to nab more than 50% of votes in the Nov. 3 election.

Among prominent Democratic candidates still in the race are Ed Tarver, a former U.S. attorney and state senator from Augusta, and Matt Lieberman, son of former U.S. senator and 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

Lieberman turned heads by polling higher than Warnock by 5 percentage points in a poll released Wednesday by Monmouth University.

If no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote in November, a runoff will be held in January between the top two vote-getters.

With U.S. Census deadline near, Georgia pushes for higher count

Georgia is lagging in its count of the 2020 U.S. Census. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

With a deadline looming, Georgia is pushing to increase its final count in the 2020 U.S. Census amid hurdles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and poor internet access in some areas.

As of last week, roughly 81% of households in Georgia had completed the 2020 census either on their own initiative or after census takers visited them in a door-to-door canvassing effort that has been complicated by COVID-19 social distancing.

That completion rate ranks Georgia at the bottom tier of U.S. states, trailed only by Alabama. Several other Southern states including Louisiana, Mississippi and both Carolinas have also struggled to up their census counts. The national average completion rate stood at 89.4%.

The deadline for wrapping up the census count is currently set for Sept. 30.

“We are not doing well,” said Michele NeSmith, research and policy development director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, who has been working on census outreach for the past several months. “Overall, we still have a lot of work to do.”

The decennial count affects the state’s share of a huge pot of federal dollars provided annually for a wide range of programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, housing vouchers, highway construction, child-care services, special education and more.

Roughly $1.5 trillion will be available for states to tap into depending on the size of their census-determined populations, according to research from Georgia Washington University. The larger the population, the larger the share.

The census also plays a major political role in influencing how state lawmakers may redraw General Assembly and congressional district boundaries during negotiations next summer.

Some counties have seen gains in their census counts so far compared to 2010, said NeSmith. For instance, Pulaski and Pike counties – both located in central rural parts of the state – have each seen about a 7% increase in their population counts.

Overall, 43 Georgia counties have increased their self-response rates since the previous census.

But many counties are still lagging. NeSmith noted that as of last week, 58 counties showed self-reporting rates of less than 50%. Some counties like Jenkins, Terrell, Dooly and Calhoun have fallen far behind their self-reporting counts by between 15% to more than 25% below the 2010 census, she said.

Georgia has also largely lagged in the success rate for door-to-door census takers to get people to complete the census who did not do so on their own. Overall, the statewide success for those follow-up counts stood at 57.4% as of Friday.

South Georgia areas saw especially low follow-up counts, with a broad stretch of the state from the Macon area down to the Florida line showing between 39% and 46% follow-up success rates, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The counting shortfall has coincided with social-distancing practices prompted by COVID-19, which quickly handcuffed outreach volunteers who had been planning for months to help people in hard-to-reach areas take the census in local libraries, churches and big events that were shuttered.

Census outreach officials and volunteers who formed statewide and local counting committees have just about exhausted their resources for rolling out awareness efforts via social media, phone calls, texts and mailers, said Holger Loewendorf, a research analyst with the Georgia Municipal Association.

“We’re kind of at an inflection point,” Loewendorf said. “We’ve done almost everything we can in terms of our messaging.”

Outreach has been particularly difficult in hard-to-reach segments of the population that lack good internet access or tend to mistrust government activities in general, Loewendorf said. The pandemic has made reaching those individuals even more difficult, he said.

To overcome challenges, Loewendorf said outreach workers have framed completing the census as a social responsibility akin to voting in the upcoming election. They also tie low counts to fewer local funds, which could mean less money for public-health agencies and schools struggling in the pandemic.

“All these current crises that we’re going through only heighten the importance of the census,” Loewendorf said. “A lot of these issues can be remedied by the census to a certain degree.”

But time is running out. After extending the count deadline to Oct. 31, the U.S. Census Bureau recently shortened that deadline to Sept. 30, cutting a month out of the remaining time that everyone has to complete the census.

Federal lawsuits filed to keep the Oct. 31 deadline await hearings in the coming days, but outreach workers like NeSmith and Loewendorf are not banking on a favorable court outcome.

Meanwhile, several groups are still pushing hard to encourage people to fill out census forms before the Sept. 30 deadline. Among these groups is Fair Count, the census-focused nonprofit founded by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who also founded a separate voting-rights group.

Fair Count organized outreach bus tours in 75 counties across the state over the summer and has promoted the census via social media, virtual townhalls, phone banking and other outreach methods, said the group’s program director, Ed Reed.

Reed estimated thousands of Georgians were reached by those efforts, resulting in “upticks outside the norm” in the state’s census count. Indeed, Georgia did boost its completion rate from around 56% in late May to roughly 81% in early September due to increased awareness and door-to-door outreach.

Now, Fair Count has launched a census-focused virtual bus tour across Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina that began earlier this month. The group is partnering on the virtual tour with the E Pluribus Unum initiative, founded by former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

“We’re trying to be creative and savvy to reach people where they are,” Reed said. “The only way that we’ll be able to fully respond and rebuild and recover from COVID-19, is if we have a fair and accurate census.”

Others, like Loewendorf, also sought to convey that all is not doom-and-gloom with the census. There is still time to tally up more Georgians and hard-to-count persons across the country, he stressed.

“There’s still hope, so to speak,” Loewendorf said. “Now, it’s just can you take five minutes out of your day and complete the census.”