Crime and Public Safety

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has not been uncommon to hear of surges in crime and the increasing difficulty of hiring and retaining public safety professionals. Tasked with protecting their communities against all threats to public safety, Georgia cities are meeting these challenges head on. With the economic and social upheaval brought on by the pandemic over these last several years, today’s environment provides a unique backdrop to study trends in crime rates and how cities are responding.

Between August and September 2022, GMA set out to research issues of crime and public safety that too many cities – big to small, urban to rural – are experiencing. Based on data from surveys, roundtable discussions and outside sources including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, this article documents crime trends throughout the pandemic, from 2019 through 2021, and hopes to inform ongoing dialogue and research around crime prevention within cities.[1]

Violent and Property Crime

Data reported by 200 municipal police departments in Georgia revealed that between 2019 and 2021, violent crime rose year on year, while property crime declined.[2] Other research looking at the pandemic’s impact have pointed to similar patterns. However, what Georgia cities witnessed in 2020, one year into the pandemic, were worse compared to national trends.

Crime rate = Number of incidents per 1000 people

Breaking down the numbers by population group provides a more in-depth look at how different parts of the state experienced crime.[3] Medium-sized cities saw the worst of it: violent crime jumped 71% in 2020, outpacing even large cities which on average saw a 34% increase. In these larger cities, violent crime continued to rise in 2021, albeit at a much slower rate.

Medium-sized cities were also the only population group to have seen a higher, rather than lower, property crime rate in 2020, jumping 18%. Large cities saw the largest drop in 2020 but then a reversal in 2021 when property crime rates started rising again.

Many of these medium-sized cities border large cities. Further research could examine whether there was outward migration from large cities such as Atlanta and Savannah in the first year of the pandemic that pushed people – and crime – further out. That violent crime in Atlanta dropped 55% in 2020 is a telling observation supporting migration from the urban core.

Digging Deeper

Homicide rate (left chart) = Number of homicide incidents per 1000 people

This research also examined trends in homicide rates between 2019 and 2021. The data revealed that the average homicide rate shot up 66% in 2020 and barely slowed in 2021 (-0.4%). These mirror trends from other research that look at cities nationwide.

Medium-sized cities that in 2019 saw less than two homicide incidents suddenly saw numbers multiply significantly. Griffin, for instance, reported one homicide in 2019 but seven in 2020. Garden City, just outside of Savannah, reported no homicides in 2019 then five a year later.

Homicide rates in large cities are similarly alarming. The cities of Sandy Springs and South Fulton, for example, saw homicide rates in 2020 increase five-fold from 2019.

Trends in juvenile crime as reported by local police departments reveal further cause for concern about how the pandemic has destabilized communities. Year-on-year increases were seen across the board: 65% in 2020 and a further 20% in 2021.

In 2020 alone, juvenile arrests climbed between 70-80% in cities larger than 10,000 – a stark change at a time when most kids saw their lives upended by school closures and had to transition to course instruction via Zoom, if at all. These changes meant a scaling down of interactions with the outside world. Students who had an identity or community tied to a social setting like church, a sports league or an extracurricular activity lost some of that structure and social opportunities provided by those communities.

Behind the Numbers

Feedback from city leaders around the state has helped peel back some of the layers around these trends in violent, property and juvenile crime. Cities cite a rise in gun violence and the use of guns as an overblown reaction to disputes that could be resolved without assault weapons. Conflict resolution skills are lacking or deteriorating to the point where people, including teens, are resorting to guns as the solution. Improper storage of guns also increases access to these weapons.

City officials describe how kids are being increasingly exposed to crime and the culture that is found within it. At a young age, when kids are most impressionable and in search of a sense of status or belonging, they will search in the wrong places, i.e. gangs, especially if they are not able to find it at home or in school.

City officials are also aware of the geographic concentration of crime within their cities, citing hotels, motels, interstates and blighted properties as ‘hotspots’ more prone to having incidents. Cities are also witnessing more cases related to drug use and trafficking that add complexity to combating not only crime but also homelessness and mental health issues.

While new technology can assist in deterring crime, for example, installing license plate readers, it plays just one part of the solution. City leaders acknowledge the need to address the indirect and root causes of crime, such as poverty and lack of support or resources at different circles of influence, including the family and school. However, a Georgia State University researcher cautions against referring to these as causes but more as risk factors. He says, “People are subject to where they live and who they live with.”

Cities are focusing resources where they can have the greatest impact, and working with youth has been a starting point for many. They want to identify and target potential disconnects that may open up crime ‘entry points,’ such as summer break when students have less structure to their lives. Cities are also working with schools and community groups, e.g. Boys and Girls clubs, to assist with outreach, and using metrics such as literacy rates and drop-out levels to target resources and measure impact.

To confront the crime and public safety challenges in cities and create better outcomes for their residents, local leaders cannot do it alone. They need and rely on resources and partnerships with other agencies and institutions.



[1] This analysis covers the years 2019, 2020 and 2021 based on the data available from GBI.

[2] The definitions for violent crime and property crime are based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which categories murder (homicide), rape, robbery and assault as violent crime, and burglary, larceny and auto theft as property crime.

[3] This analysis categorizes cities by population: Small (S) = under 10,000. Medium (M) = between 10,000 (inclusive) and 25,000 (exclusive). Large (L) = above 25,000 (inclusive).


Slides: Crime and Public Safety in Georgia's Cities (GMA Board Meeting, September 2022)