By John Schaffner

Faced with a vocal community reaction to high-profile crimes in the city and questions as to whether Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington is “missing in action,” Mayor Shirley Franklin and the chief announced July 30 an “aggressive crime fighting” initiative focused on gangs and the addition of 139 officers on the streets.

The duo said the Atlanta Police Department’s gang unit is being quadrupled from six to 24 officers, and police will more frequently patrol areas known for criminal activity.

Pennington, who also announced he will resign as chief at the end of December, said more crime is being committed by gangs and young people who are more knowledgeable and brazen about their targets.

The news conference came after a rash of violence in the waning days of July, including the murder of former boxing champion Vernon Forrest and the carjacking of City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell. It was the first time the mayor and chief had publicly spoken on crime since those incidents and came in response to suggestions both had checked out on their responsibilities with five months left in Franklin’s term.

Pennington said he could not have initiated some of the anti-crime efforts sooner because of officer furloughs that began in December and lasted until the budget year ended June 30.

Franklin said the department will have an additional 139 officers in training or on the streets by the end of this year. She said 73 of those officers are new positions that will initially be funded with federal grants. The others are recruits who are or will be in training. All of the officers will be on patrol by March, officials said.

The mayor had set an early goal to have the force up to 2,000 sworn officers. The department now has about 1,670 officers, including recruits. More than 100 officers work at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Atlanta has had trouble keeping new officers on the force. More than one-third of the officers who left the force between 2004 and 2007 worked in the department for less than a year, according to a 2008 internal audit report.

The majority of increased patrols, and likely added officers, will be in Zones 1, 3 and 4 (downtown, southwest and southeast Atlanta), which have some of the city’s highest crime rates. The internal audit, released in April, said the department needs more officers patrolling those areas.

Both Pennington and the mayor said crime is down in the city, but the chief conceded the department can do more.

Critics say the chief has not been publicly visible for several major incidents, including the initial days after the 2006 fatal police shooting of a 92-year-old woman and the recent the rash of robberies and attacks on students and others around the Georgia Tech campus.

Pennington said he was at a mandatory training conference in Virginia when Forrest was murdered and Mitchell was carjacked.

“I wasn’t missing in action,” the chief said. “I have not checked out.”

The mayor defended Pennington, calling him a great chief. “I think he has really reformed this department.”

Since Pennington became chief in July 2002, crime has decreased in Atlanta, and it has become a safer city, according to FBI data. But many Atlantans have been unimpressed with his low-key leadership style.