Following its deadliest year in nearly a decade, Atlanta has witnessed a sharp decline in homicides so far in 2017.
The city recorded 111 murders in 2016— the first time since 2008 the city’s homicide rate topped the century mark and the third year in a row murders had increased in Atlanta. President Donald Trump even called the city “crime-infested” — a dubious characterization since crime overall had decreased.
And it continues to go down in virtually every major category As of July 15, aggravated assaults and burglaries, often viewed as the more effective barometer of crime since they affect more people, are down four percent and 26 percent, respectively.
But nowhere has the decrease been more significant than in homicides: 43 as of last Saturday compared to 62 at this time a year ago.
The numbers represent a major victory for Atlanta’s top cop Erika Shields, a former patrol officer who became the city’s 24th police chief in December. She credits the decline to organizational restructuring, a chance in focus from number of arrests to quality of arrests and, most critically, getting guns off the streets.
Shields ordered APEX (Atlanta Proactive Enforcement Interdiction), the force’s tactical unit, to make seizing firearms from criminals their top priority. APEX has confiscated 157 guns thus far in 2017 compared to just 14 this time last year. Of the guns seized, 43 were stolen and 58 were taken from convicted felons.
“The mayor’s directive to me was we’ve got to get a handle on violent crimes and homicides,” Shields said.
“We had to give our people a clear objective.”
When the year began, shootings had risen 49 percent from 2009. And there is a note of concern: Despite the reduction in murders, there have actually been more shootings this year (264) than last (236).
“You can lose your successes in a week,” Shields acknowledged.
Grant Park resident Sara Riney applauded the new approach, saying her neighborhood has been “pretty quiet” this summer, a time of year when crime typically rises.
“Anything that gets guns off the streets,” said Riney, who was an active member of Atlantans Together Against Crime, a citizens group that put public safety on the front burner in the 2009 mayor’s race.
“The randomness of the violence was scary to people,” she said, referring to high-profile incidents such as the murders of popular Grant Park bartender John Henderson and former welterweight boxing champion Vernon Forrest.
Still, crime overall was down that year. And murders had decreased nearly 50 percent in 2009 from the beginning of the decade.
While Riney said she doesn’t think the same intensity exists around the issue this time around, 31 percent of likely voters said crime remains the most important issue driving their vote in the upcoming mayoral election — twice as much as any other issue — according to a just-released poll for 11 Alive conducted by Survey USA.
And 37 percent of those polled said they “somewhat or strongly disagreed” with the statement, “Atlanta is safe city in which to live.” Fourteen percent strongly agreed and 47% somewhat agreed.
Shields said she remains troubled by the “minimal amount of progress” made by Fulton County judges in dealing with repeat offenders, which Mayor Kasim Reed recently termed “the issue of the day when it comes to public safety.
APD spokesman Carlos Campos said internal data has shown more convicted felons with guns are bonding out of jail, at little cost.
“In 2017, the average stay in jail before bonding out for convicted felons with firearms is 18 days,” Campos said.
Shields said she is also concerned about the 240 vacancies on the force, a problem she attributes to an improving economy, acts of violence committed against officers and questionable uses of force by police.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, leading in polls for mayor, said retention is key. In 2011, according to Norwood, 50 APD officers resigned. That number swelled to 160 last year.
“It’s critical we make compensation adjustments for our officers,” Norwood said.
Asked her appraisal of Shields, who serves at the mayor’s pleasure, Norwood said she has been “very pleased (the chief) is honing in on violent crime.” She declined to say whether, if elected, she would retain Shields as chief.
“Crime is still the number one issue,” said Norwood, who barely lost to Reed in a runoff in 2009. “When violent crime occurs, and you are a victim, the stats don’t matter.”