A recent spate of homicides, in Atlanta in particular, has contributed to a general sense of unease over public safety in Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp has blamed criminal gangs as the main driver.

After decades of falling crime rates overall in Georgia, what is responsible for a rise in violent crimes over the past two years? For his part, Kemp has declared gang crime a crisis and pegged it as the main driver of crime across the state. 

“This crisis needed strong action and we have certainly taken that,” Kemp told reporters last month at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's (GBI) headquarters, flanked by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and GBI director Vic Reynolds.

His solution to the problem comes in the form of a key campaign promise: the creation of a statewide initiative called the Gang Task Force (GTF) headed by the GBI. 

“Street gangs are at the center of violent crime and human trafficking in communities rural and urban, regardless of race or ethnicity,” Kemp said last month, marking two years since the task force became operational.

While trimming budgets in most areas, Georgia's state legislature has allocated nearly $3 million in funding towards the project since 2019, according to budget records and the GBI. The idea that a statewide effort to combat gang crime was needed raised eyebrows at first: in 2018, when Kemp was elected, crime was at an all-time low since the 1990s. 

But violent crime statewide has ticked up over the past two years, according to U.S. Department of Justice and GBI statistics. Crime in 2020 was down 22% compared to 2019, but murder, rapes and aggravated assault all increased, while burglary, robbery, larceny and motor vehicle theft declined. Amid the crime-data clash of historical lows and the recent statewide uptick, the issue has become dominant in the upcoming Atlanta mayoral election this year and likely will be key to the governor’s reelection campaign in 2022. 

Department of Justice data shows an overall downward trend in violent-crime rate per 100,000 people per year in Georgia and the U.S. between 1986 and 2019. (Credit: FBI Crime Data Explorer)


Defining the Problem

At a meeting of the Georgia General Assembly’s public safety and homeland security committee last month, Rep. Mack Jackson (D-Sandersville) stressed: “We’re not only having (gang crime) in Atlanta, we’re experiencing a rise in crime too in rural communities.”

Notorious national and transnational gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, the Central American gang MS-13 and the white nationalist gangs Ghostface Gangsters and the Aryan Brotherhood have a presence in the Peach State, officials say. But publicly available data only points to crime overall, leaving the public to rely on state and local law enforcement's assessment that gang crime as a subset of all crime is growing. What’s more, a gang is broadly defined under the law, constituting at least three people with common identifying characteristics that are accused of a specific criminal act.

Gangs and gang-related violence has been growing consistently over the past five years,” said Kevin Rowson, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Atlanta field office.

For its part, the FBI already has seven separate task forces focused on gangs and violent crime operating in Georgia. Nationally, the FBI spends nearly $3.3 billion per year on its programs dedicated towards criminal enterprises nationwide, which includes their 173 gang task forces.

How much federal money is earmarked specifically for Georgia is unclear. State Affairs was told to make a freedom of information act request to obtain that figure, and is awaiting a response as of publication. For the FBI, the creation of the gang task force largely means business continues as usual.

“Our relationship with the GBI gang task force is similar to our relationship with every other law enforcement agencies gang task forces throughout the state,” Rowson said. “We are in constant communication with those agencies and constantly sharing information.”

GBI spokeswoman Natalie Ammons said the state and federal task forces “share intelligence in both directions routinely” and that the state gang task force has agents deputized in four of the FBI’s task forces.

So what exactly does Kemp’s task force add to the mix?

Since the GBI’s gang task force began operations in July 2019, it boasts having worked on 884 “gang related or gang motivated investigations” involving nearly 70 separate criminal street gangs, according to the GBI. According to the GBI, the task force employs an office manager, a special agent in charge, two assistant special agents in charge, 10 GBI agents, an Atlanta Police Department detective, a Georgia National Guard intelligence analyst and two GBI intelligence analysts. There are also 31 GBI agents with the title “Regional Gang Specialist” deployed across the state.

Georgia has budgeted nearly $3 million for the state's gang-crime task force since 2019. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)


What is a Gang? 

Both Kemp and Carr have cited a figure from the Georgia Gang Investigators Association that estimates there are 71,000 gang members in Georgia. The figure  far higher than the prior estimates by the FBI received some scrutiny from observers including the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s former political columnist Jim Galloway, who pointed out the figure is greater than the armies that Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant commanded during the U.S. Civil War. 

Who counts as a gang member also raises questions. The Department of Justice says defines gangs as "associations of three or more individuals who adopt a group identity in order to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.” 

Georgia law adds to that definition, saying the three individuals must have some common “identifying features” such as tattoos, names, symbols or graffiti. State law also says that the three individuals must be engaged in “criminal gang activity,” specifically listing crimes such as assault, rape, burglary and murder.

Such a broad definition means that charging and prosecuting suspects as members of a gang relies on the discretion of prosecutors. 

“As far as what gangs are operating in Georgia, it would be impossible to list, depending on who you talk to,” said the FBI's Rowson. “Suffice it to say, there are hundreds.”

But the state's gang task force may soon give clarity on the footprint of gangs in Georgia with the creation of a new database to track suspected gang members, which is administered by GBI with contributions from local law enforcement underway this year. GBI’s Reynolds said the first participating sites should come online sometime this fall. Speaking to the local radio station WABE, Reynolds said the database would use stringent criteria to determine who went on it, and said the agency took profiling concerns seriously.

“If we err, we err on the side of not putting you on there (in the database),” Reynolds said. 

GBI Director Vic Reynolds (pictured) discusses statewide gang-related investigations during a news conference on July 15, 2021. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)


Politics of Public Safety

While many factors may explain the recent rise in crime such as changes in economic opportunity or the stress of the Covid-19 pandemic, Kemp and other state officials have homed in on political leadership and have accused elected Democratic leaders of interfering with law enforcement’s ability to crack down on crimes. 

“It boils down to whether or not the policymakers, the elected officials, in all candor, and pardon my bluntness, will get the hell out of the way,” Reynolds told WABE earlier this month.

Crime and public safety is “the dominant issue” in the Atlanta mayoral elections later this year, according to Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. Incumbent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has had a rocky relationship with Kemp over local crime and COVID-19 mask mandates, is not running for reelection.

But focusing on crime may also help Kemp secure reelection next year, said Bullock. Following Democratic victories in the presidential election statewide as well as the two U.S. Senate seats now held by Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff by thin margins, Georgia Republicans will need to make gains where they can in urban areas, Bullock said.

“For the first time ever, urban Georgia is out-voting rural Georgia,” Bullock said. “Having a position on crime may help the governor do a bit better in DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties – counties which largely accounted for the defeats of Republicans.”

Charles Bullock (pictured) is a professor of political science at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs. (Credit: University of Georgia)


More than just a Problem for Police

Kemp acknowledged gang crime isn’t a problem that can be solely solved by policing in a speech earlier this month at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's Congressional Luncheon. The governor asked local business leaders to speak with local law enforcement as well as school, churches and community organizations. 

“Work with them to put forward new job training or mental health programs that deter people from lives of crime,” he said.

Advocates for community-based programs that focus on crime prevention by addressing social ills that may put youth at risk say this approach can reduce the need for tough policing later on.

“We cannot arrest our way out of this,” said Coco Papy, the director of development and communications for the Deep Center, a nonprofit founded in 2008 with the aim of alleviating poverty and illiteracy in the Savannah area.

Those working directly with communities, like Papy, say the problem needs to be approached from more than just a police perspective: public health experts and community advocates should also be involved. 

“We don’t want to create a narrative around the problem that creates more of a sense of fear than there needs to be,” she said. 


What do you want to know about the gang task force and gang crime in Georgia? Email your thoughts and questions to: alessandro@stateaffairs.com.