As crime rose, Atlanta failed to spend millions earmarked for violence prevention



City struggles to implement anti-violence task force recommendations

Shortly after 10 a.m. on a sunny Monday last March the sound of gunshots sliced through Atlanta’s Oakland City West End apartments.

According to police reports, the incident began like so much violent crime: Unnecessarily. Two men in a white Kia pulled up next to a 15-year-old. After a brief verbal altercation — a witness says the two parties went back and forth asking each other “what are you looking at?” — the driver whipped out a gun and fired. By 10:30 a.m. the teen was being rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital. A bullet had hit his right elbow, before tearing thru his stomach.

“I saw a child. A kid, lying on the floor bleeding,” resident Minnie Pearl, who called 9-1-1, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. “We see this every day.”

This reality in some neighborhoods, that shootings are an inevitable fabric of life, is what pushed Atlanta in 2021 to create a Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction. It was the top recommendation by the Anti-Violence Advisory Council, a blue-ribbon committee that met that summer to study the rise in violence in the city.

The idea was that the mayor needs a non-law enforcement unit that wakes up every morning focused on strategies to reduce gun violence and help coordinate and provide oversight of various anti-violence initiatives. But the office has struggled in its first year, losing its founding director after just 11 months, and failing to get off the ground a new $5 million anti-violence street outreach program that was supposed to be its first initiative in 2022.

The program, known as Cure Violence, was supposed to be part of an ambitious proposal to invest some $35 million in “violence prevention,” a newer concept in the world of crime-fighting, that focuses on strategies outside of law enforcement.

Cure Violence, which is a national organization based in Chicago, would work with local nonprofits to send workers into neighborhoods to diffuse tense situations before they lead to gun violence. The workers are called “violence interrupters” and often have had past run-ins with violence or the law. They use that background to gain credibility on the streets with hopes of reaching those most at-risk to commit acts of violence or fall victim to violence. The Annie E. Casey Foundation funded the creation of a Cure Violence outpost in summer 2020. This was the first time the city was going to become a partner.

But the new city program has yet to start, despite the procurement office putting out a Request for Proposal for the local non-profits back in December 2021.

“This money is just sitting there,” said Volkan Topalli a professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University, back in November. He applied to be one of the local non-profits as part of a team with GSU and Emory, and only found out they didn’t get it in October, after nearly a year of waiting.

“It’s money that can be used right now today to save lives,” he continued.

While Atlanta is not unique in experiencing a rise in violent crime during the pandemic, the city has struggled to get a handle on the problem. In 2019, Atlanta registered 99 homicides. By the end of 2021, that number had risen to 161. And by last year — when these new programs were supposed to have gone into effect — Atlanta clocked in 170 homicides.

“This money is just sitting there. It's money that can be used right now today to save lives."

- Volkan Topalli, a professor of Criminal Justice at Georgia State University

Michael Smith, a spokesperson for the mayor, said two non-profits signed contracts in the fall for $1.5 million each to launch the program. This leaves $2 million to be spent before the end of 2024 when the funds — which were earmarked from the American Rescue Plan Act — must be obligated.

Smith did not know where those remaining funds would go. He did not respond to the AJC’s question about what the Office for Violence Reduction did or accomplished in 2022.

During a recent conversation with the AJC, Mayor Andre Dickens said the Mayor’s Office for Violence Reduction was just getting started when he was sworn in in January 2022.

He said the office in its first year worked with community members but he didn’t mention the delay of the violence interrupter program, making it sound like the program was on track.

“These folks are getting started,” he said. “The Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction has been performing as that outreach arm with just four people. That’s why you don’t hear a lot about it. But now we have millions of dollars of resources that’s going to street outreach that you will see as force multipliers in 2023.”



Violence prevention program stalled

A white and grey stucco development, the Oakland City West End apartments, where the teen was shot last year, had 38 serious crimes reported by police between 2017 and January 2022. These included homicides in 2017, 2020, and 2021, as well as 17 aggravated assaults, two robberies, an attempted rape, and two child molestations.

It’s also not unique to the city. The development was among over 270 persistently dangerous apartment complexes in the metro area, according to last year’s “Dangerous Dwellings” investigation by the AJC. Combined, these complexes account for at least 281 homicides and 20,000 serious crimes over the past five years.

These are the types of places cities must target their efforts if they are going to lower homicides and gun violence, said Thomas Abt, a founding director of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland, who was called in as an expert for the Anti-Violence Advisory Council in 2021.

“Violence, particularly community gun violence, is extraordinarily concentrated,” he said. “It’s concentrated not just among a small group of people, but also a small group of places.”

To that end, the city hired Cure Violence in September 2021 to help get its anti-violence program going. Cure Violence signed a contract for $196,000 to identify local nonprofits in Atlanta and provide oversight.

In December 2021, the city announced two new community outreach sites to be run by local nonprofits who would operate “violence interrupter” programs in neighborhoods where gun violence was prevalent.

One zone would be on the Westside encompassing the neighborhoods of Bankhead, Vine City and Washington Park. The other in southwest Atlanta, targeting the neighborhoods of Oakland City, Campbellton Road, and Venetian Hills.

The same month that the plan was announced, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said she had hired Jacquel Clemons Moore to be the first director of the new Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction.

“The establishment of the Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction and the expansion of violence prevention programs are key components of our strategies toward combatting rising crime,” Bottoms said in a press release.

A new mayor challenged

Dickens took office the next month, January 2022, and was immediately thrust into an existential crisis.

The Buckhead cityhood movement supporters were making noise about the rise in crime in the affluent northern area of the city and Dickens had to address this powerful constituency.

His first few months in office were spent fending off efforts for the area to break away from Atlanta and form its own city. Dickens beefed up police presence in Buckhead and was able to rally the city police force to open a mini-APD Buckhead precinct in just six months.

Meanwhile, the city’s homicide numbers continued to rise, many of the killings occurring in south Atlanta. But the Mayor’s Office of Violence Reduction and the signature violence prevention outreach program that meant to help these less affluent neighborhoods languished.

“What we found over time was they just weren’t moving on the proposal,” Topalli said.

Credit: Atlanta Police Department

Credit: Atlanta Police Department

In late October 2022 — nearly a year after the city had issued a call for proposals — Atlanta selected and inked contracts with local nonprofits Offender Alumni Association and Chris 180.

Meanwhile, Clemons Moore stepped down from her city position heading the violence prevention office in November -- just 11 months after she accepted the job. She declined to comment about her tenure with the city. Clemons Moore’s successor, Michael Clery, had been her deputy director since last spring.

Dickens’s press secretary Smith said the delays with the city’s violence prevention program were a result of the initiative being new.

“Building a program from the ground up and ensuring a fair and compliant procurement process takes time,” Smith wrote in a statement. In January he said the program would be “fully operational” by March.

When asked this month about the status of the initiative, Clery indicated the timeline had been pushed back, stating that staff training would be completed in April.

Citizens concerned about violence

Today, the city still lacks a cohesive body leading the way on violence prevention efforts, as the Anti-Violence Advisory Council recommended more than a year and a half ago. A well-functioning office was supposed to cut through the bureaucracy to coordinate violence prevention efforts, not add to the complications, experts say.

Instead, the city’s efforts are a mix of voices and recommendations. This was on display last December when, following the deaths of two teens near Atlantic Station on Nov. 26, the Citywide Public Safety Commission held a special meeting to “allow public input and discuss strategies for combatting youth violence in Atlanta.”

The gathering packed City Hall and highlighted how frustrated so many citizens are by the pervasive violence. But, also how bifurcated and convoluted the city’s response remains.

One by one, citizens came up to the mic to share ideas, discuss the impact of gun violence on their lives, and brainstorm solutions. Some attendees even suggested Atlanta bring “CeaseFire” to the city, a program with many similarities to Cure Violence, which was not mentioned at the meeting. Nor was there a felt presence of the Office for Violence Reduction.

Clery said he was not in attendance. Nor was he in attendance the following month when Dickens, who was also not present at the meeting, announced a new “Year of Youth” initiative to “combat violent crime” by helping to slot kids into afterschool programs and internships.

At the January press conference, Dickens said the initiative would be working with young people through after-school programs, nonprofits, and the school system to talk about how to de-escalate tense situations before they become violent.

He expressed sympathy for the grieving mother of 13-year-old, Deshon DuBose, who had been killed in a shooting near an Atlanta skating rink.

“We don’t want to have another young man incarcerated and another young man dead,” Dickens said.

Credit: Family photo

Credit: Family photo

While the program, at face value, appears to be in line with “violence prevention” according to Abt its brushstroke approach — targeting kids across the city — misses the point.

He believes cities need a mix of law enforcement and violence prevention strategies. But that neither works in bringing down crime if it’s not targeting the most at-risk areas and individuals.

“If you are not focused on the highest risk people, places, and behaviors it is fundamentally not anti-violence reduction,” said Abt, who says targeting a kid wanting to attend such extracurriculars does little to actually bring down gun violence. The work needs to be specific and focused.

This is also, he explained, why an Office for Violence Reduction — a coordinating body — is so vital to help cities as they grapple with the current crisis.

“These offices are really important,” Abt said. “But just establishing the office isn’t a panacea. It has to be staffed properly. It has to be funded properly.”

Back at the Oakland City West End apartments, the shooting of the teen last March is a fuzzy memory for some. Because he survived, the shooting became nothing more than a daily news story and life continued on. Guns remain a reality for many of the young people the AJC spoke with on a bright weekday in January.

A group of young people aged 15 to 25 congregated on a recent morning on the steps next to one of the units. When a reporter asked about the shooting, and gun violence in general, the topic was confusing, and at times conflicting. The answers showed a combination of acceptance, pride, and denial.

“Life goes on,” a 17-year-old who declined to give his name said. “Everyone should have a gun. You never know what can happen.”