Keisha Lance Bottoms’ legacy: Facility, services for mental health, drug issues
By David Pendered
A legacy of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms may be a facility with services to help those struggling with issues of mental health, drugs and extreme homelessness. The program is portrayed as an alternative to arrest and incarceration.
The creation of such a facility may be unparalleled in this era of softened public support for enhancing social services for alleged criminals, regardless of underlying problems.
Rising crime rates and gun violence have eroded much of the “defund the police” sentiment that arose after George Floyd’s death, in May 2020. The Atlanta City Council joined the debate in June 2020, before a majority ruled against major funding cuts to criminal justice.
Minneapolis residents led the nation’s movement to defund police over the past 18 months. Voters rejected the plan on Nov. 2.
Advocates had secured more than 20,000 signatures to place a ballot proposal to eliminate the city police department. The successor was to be the Department of Public Safety. It was to be “public health-oriented” and it may have hired police officers, or not. The language was unclear and the two sides never agreed. The proposed department “could include licensed peace officers… if necessary.”
Minneapolis voters rejected the proposal with about 56 percent of votes cast. The vote doesn’t mark a historic shift toward conservatism for a city viewed as progressive. A measure approved by 53 percent of the vote allows the city council to enact rent control by ordinance.
Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts said last week that Bottoms’ name would be appropriate for the planned Center for Diversion and Services. It’s slated to open in the Atlanta City Detention Center, at an unspecified date in 2022, with services provided by Grady Health System and the Policing Alternatives and Diversion program.
“Mayor Bottoms deserves full, total credit for keeping this issue before us,” Pitts said in his initial comments during the Nov. 3 meeting of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners.
“I think it should be named after Keisha Lance Bottoms,” Pitts concluded.
The measure passed by a 4-1 vote, which does not represent a moment of fellowship with the city, nor does it encompass the rancor voiced over persistent difficulties several commissioners expressed over reaching a consensus with the City Council.
Overcrowding at the Fulton County Jail is one friction point.
Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. emphasized his displeasure over the failure of Fulton County to secure 500 beds in the city jail as part of the deal for the diversion center. He voted against the proposed center and resigned in protest from a joint city/county commission that’s supposed to address the overcrowding issue.
Arrington said repeatedly that he supports pre-trial diversion services of the type contemplated at the planned center. He said objects to the failure of the city to provide the county with beds to ease overcrowding. He said the city has failed to respond to requests to convene meetings of a joint commission formed to resolve the impasse.
“If they want us to participate, they need to find 500 beds immediately, immediately,” Arrington said. “I’m not going to participate in them ignoring our requests, them ignoring their own resolution they passed to get us beds at the jail.”
Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman said the issue of the diversion center should not be tied to the 500 beds Fulton County wants to secure from Atlanta.
Commissioner Liz Hausman responded that the two issues cannot be separated.
“My main concern is not addressing the bed space,” Hausman said. “I cannot understand why this is being left out of the discussion.”
Commissioner Natalie Hall went through a line-by-line comparison that showed discrepancies between the document the Atlanta City Council approved Nov. 1 and the Nov. 3 version pending before the commission.
Pitts ended the debate and called the vote. Details are to be resolved once Atlanta’s next mayor takes office, Pitts said.
Bottoms issued a statement immediately after the commission vote that placed the matter in the context of her legacy: “[W]e are helping those charged with minor, non-violent offenses access the resources they need to help turn their lives around. It is equity in action and another historic step in our vision for a more equitable Atlanta.”