ATLANTA -- Depending on whom you ask, skyrocketing Atlanta crime has people afraid to leave their homes or the city is experiencing an uptick in violence that's not unlike what's occurring in major cities across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The increased violent crime in the capitol city is playing out in this year's mayoral race and has caught the eye of state elected officials, angling to carry the issue into the 2022 election season.
Republicans, including Gov. Brian Kemp, Attorney General Chris Carr and House Speaker David Ralston have spent the past several months calling out the crime spike in Atlanta, putting an emphasis on combating gangs, human trafficking and street racing.
"Atlantans remain on high alert while driving to and from work, getting groceries and pumping gas, picking kids up from school, visiting the Beltline or leaving their car in a parking deck," Carr said. "Their fear is, unfortunately, warranted and it's entirely unacceptable. ... Violent crime in our state can be solved, but it will take leadership."
Atlanta had a historically deadly 2020, when authorities investigated 157 homicide cases -- the most in more than two decades. This year, as of June, homicides had increased in Atlanta by more than 50% and shootings had increased by 40% compared to the same time period in 2020.
Republican candidates fighting to maintain power in an increasingly politically split state see Atlanta crime as a winner with their base.
Kemp is up for reelection after a close victory in 2018, as is Carr. Ralston is working to preserve the GOP's narrowing edge in the state House.
And all are telling voters that Republicans are the law-and-order champions who can help tackle rising crime rates.
Even Insurance Commissioner John King -- a former police chief whose job is to regulate insurance companies and investigate reports of insurance fraud and possible arsons -- is running as a tough-on-crime candidate. A recent fundraising email asked supporters to donate to King's campaign to ensure the "radical left" doesn't "undermine public safety."
Carr said if Georgians are concerned about crime, they need to be thoughtful about who they vote for.
"At the end of the day, this is not just a public safety issue, it's a quality of life issue and an economic development issue," he said. "Companies will not locate or expand in places where their employees are not going to be safe."
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University, said Republicans often use a "tough on crime" stance to generate support from voters.
"They hope to use this in part as a wedge issue, but also in part to highlight the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party that's been open to proposing certain types of policing reform that could be viewed on the right is extreme," she said.
The General Assembly this year passed legislation, mostly along party lines, that prohibits notable reductions in local law enforcement budgets and prevents "defund the police" efforts to redirect money to services such as mental health treatment or education that have been seen in other parts of the country.
State Rep. Josh McLaurin, a Sandy Springs Democrat, said focusing on crime in Atlanta gives Republicans the ability to promote an "us versus them" mentality to the GOP base.
"At a time when the Republican Party is searching for a legitimate identity, or messaging in general, it's no surprise that Republicans are looking for any culture war they can find to keep their base motivated," he said.
The social media feeds of Republican elected officials are full of calls for supporting police, cracking down on crimes such as street racing and human trafficking and warning Georgians against letting Democrats bring lawlessness to the state. Atlanta, in particular, is a focus.
Kemp told a House committee studying Atlanta crime on Monday that he would ask lawmakers to address the uptick in violent offences during a special legislative session this fall. The Legislature was already expected to reconvene sometime this fall to tackle the once-a-decade task of re-drawing state and congressional district lines. Governors can ask lawmakers to take up any issue in special sessions.
On Friday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that she wants to create an office of violence reduction and in March, she said she wants the city to hire 250 more police officers, expand the city's camera network and license plate reader systems and add 10,000 more streetlights by the end of the year.
A spokesman for Bottoms said, "The City of Atlanta is working to identify and use all available resources toward crime reduction, including dedicating $70 million in private and public money needed to fund the city's crime fighting plan and the (Anti-Violence) advisory council's recommendations."
Gillespie said there are racial undertones to the concept of "law-and-order," especially when discussing Atlanta -- a city where about 60% of the residents are non-white, according to 2019 Census estimates.
"It's history of having been used as a racial code word that might be something that Republicans are hoping to use to rally rural voters who may not be directly affected by this, but could be mobilized to turnout in higher numbers," she said.
But Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, said his focus on Atlanta crime is not partisan.
"I want all of us, Republican and Democrat, to stand together and work to end this horrific crime wave," he said during a House Public Safety Committee hearing this week. "I'm not looking through this committee's work, or anything I say or do, to point blame or have a political discussion."