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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Franklin, Pennington blow it at press conference on crime

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Who knew train wrecks could happen indoors?

Mayor Shirley Franklin and Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington today faced heated questions from reporters on how the city plans to address residents' growing concerns about public safety.

The focus this morning was on Pennington, who spoke only briefly and appeared downtrodden throughout the press conference. The chief's been criticized for maintaining a low profile, especially after a recent spurt of crimes in the city that included the killing of a pro boxer, the carjacking of a councilman, and the shooting of a man walking into his girlfriend's house with groceries. Today was the first anyone's heard from him on the recent rash of crimes. (He said he was attending mandatory "police leadership training" in Virginia over the weekend.)

Reporters asked the chief — who will be looking for a new job once the mayor's term ends in January — if he has the wherewithal to address the crime issue.

"I have not 'checked out,'" Pennington said. "I will continue to work hard until [Franklin] leaves."

Franklin — who got testy with the press many times throughout the conference — voiced unwavering support for Pennington, whom she said has helped "reform" the Atlanta department and the New Orleans Police Department, where he formerly worked.

"I'm proud of his leadership," she said. "I'm proud of his integrity."

She added, however, that one crime is "one crime too many" — and that the city could do more.

In the coming weeks, Franklin said, police will step up all-night "sweeps" in certain police zones, dispatching officers to high-crime hotspots to crack down on illegal activity and then move on to other areas. The department's gang division now has 25 officers, up from six. Police officers will also enforce an 11 p.m. curfew for young adults that's already on the books in Atlanta.

She said the city is anticipating adding new officers to the force, due to stimulus funding and upcoming Police Academy graduates. Thanks to a controversial property-tax hike, the furloughs have also ended.

Franklin said the city's also reaching out to residents and community leaders to help prevent crime. She didn't describe a specific plan or program, however. Pennington said much of the recent high-profile crimes have been gang-related and committed by young people who are "more brazen and not afraid to shoot someone."

The mayor also jousted with reporters Tony McNary and Wendy Saltzman of CBS Atlanta. (McNary grilled Franklin yesterday about the issue and asked her if she had "checked out." Franklin said the question was "insulting.")

When reporters continued barraging Pennington with questions at the end of the conference, Franklin at one point reached for his arm to usher him away from the cameras.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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