To deter crime, Atlanta leaders want cameras at gas station pumps

City Council members hope to pass surveillance requirements on the heels of DeKalb County
July 19, 2023 DeKalb County:  A man was killed in a shooting at a DeKalb County gas station just outside of east Atlanta early Wednesday morning, July 19, 2023. The shooting was reported around 2 a.m. at a BP station on Flat Shoals Road near I-20 after someone opened fire on employees, DeKalb police said. When officers arrived, they found a man with a gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Details are scarce, but police said they believe the violence stemmed from an armed robbery. An employee told Channel 2 Action News that the owner was putting up displays outside the convenience store when a man approached, fired shots, snatched the cash register and ran away. Two other employees also were present. The owner then went inside the store, where he collapsed and died, the employee told the news station. A funeral home vehicle was seen transporting the body. Police have not released the name of the victim or confirmed that he was the owner. No other information has been released by police. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

July 19, 2023 DeKalb County: A man was killed in a shooting at a DeKalb County gas station just outside of east Atlanta early Wednesday morning, July 19, 2023. The shooting was reported around 2 a.m. at a BP station on Flat Shoals Road near I-20 after someone opened fire on employees, DeKalb police said. When officers arrived, they found a man with a gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Details are scarce, but police said they believe the violence stemmed from an armed robbery. An employee told Channel 2 Action News that the owner was putting up displays outside the convenience store when a man approached, fired shots, snatched the cash register and ran away. Two other employees also were present. The owner then went inside the store, where he collapsed and died, the employee told the news station. A funeral home vehicle was seen transporting the body. Police have not released the name of the victim or confirmed that he was the owner. No other information has been released by police. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Arleshia McMichael won’t let her teenagers pump gas.

The mother of three enforced the strict rule as soon as they hit driving age. They aren’t allowed to stop at any gas station or convenience store in Atlanta. McMichael or her husband make sure the tank is full before their kids get behind the wheel.

“I’m afraid of what might happen to them, being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she said.

The fear isn’t unique to McMichael’s family.

Atlanta residents — particularly on the west side of the city — say they are scared to utilize their community gas stations as drugs, prostitution, carjackings and deadly gun violence run rampant around the pumps.

City leaders are fighting to ease those concerns by mandating that gas station and convenience store owners install high-definition cameras at every gas pump that runs 24 hours, 7 days a week. Stations would also be required to have a back-up camera system.

The change would impact more than 250 businesses within the city limits. The legislation could be voted on as early as Aug. 7 when City Council returns from recess.

Similar legislation failed to gain traction over the past few years. But council members are eyeing their chance anew after DeKalb County recently began enforcing similar, but much more expansive, requirements in an effort to deter crime there.

Council member Andrea Boone, the lead sponsor of Atlanta’s proposal, said she’s jumping on the heels of their neighboring county to hold owners of these businesses accountable for helping communities in which they operate become safer.

“No one should dread going to a gas station or convenience store to get chips and a drink,” she said.

But not everyone agrees that a camera mandate is the right solution. Some critics say putting the onus on business owners misses the mark on who’s responsible for widespread crime. Trade associations say the ordinance criminalizes store owners and could spark legal challenges.

“That’s not the way to go about ensuring public safety,” said David Jaffer, a lawyer and lobbyist for multiple trade associations including the Atlanta Retailers Association and United C-Stores.

A tsunami of calls, but few arrests

The Martin Luther King Jr. corridor on the west side of Atlanta is a particular hotspot for troubled gas stations.

An analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of police data showed that officers responded to nearly 5,500 calls for service across 14 gas stations on the busy roadway since January 2022. Those calls resulted in just 376 arrests.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said that he “wholeheartedly” supports the effort to require cameras at gas pumps.

“We support it, we are ready for it to start,” Dickens said. “Gas stations are a place where a disproportionate amount of crime takes place.”

And the problem isn’t new.

According to a recently released study, 14% of violent crime in Atlanta from 2012-17 happened at gas stations and convenience stores — third behind retail shops and vacant properties. They also had the second highest rate of crime per business location across all property types.

Dickens said the city started a pilot program in Southwest Atlanta that allows police officers to pump gas for their vehicles at any gas station, instead of traveling back to police headquarters to refuel.

“That means there is more time for that officer to be visible in the zone,” he said. “Versus driving his or her car all the way downtown to get gas and then go back.”

One particular gas station in Adamsville was the subject of a lawsuit last year due to the rampant crime that plagues the business. Boone led calls for the Citgo station at 3657 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to be shuttered. A lawsuit filed by City of Atlanta asked a judge to label the gas station a “nuisance property.”

“I’ve seen open prostitution, I have seen open drug sales at MLK and Lynhurst Drive,” Boone said. “I have witnessed so much drug activity at the Citgo on MLK Jr. Drive — you would not believe it.”

July 19, 2023 DeKalb County:  A man was killed in a shooting at a DeKalb County gas station just outside of east Atlanta early Wednesday morning, July 19, 2023. The shooting was reported around 2 a.m. at a BP station on Flat Shoals Road near I-20 after someone opened fire on employees, DeKalb police said. When officers arrived, they found a man with a gunshot wound. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Details are scarce, but police said they believe the violence stemmed from an armed robbery. An employee told Channel 2 Action News that the owner was putting up displays outside the convenience store when a man approached, fired shots, snatched the cash register and ran away. Two other employees also were present. The owner then went inside the store, where he collapsed and died, the employee told the news station. A funeral home vehicle was seen transporting the body. Police have not released the name of the victim or confirmed that he was the owner. No other information has been released by police. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

“We went to court there and we were not successful at all, so that has become another drug haven, again,” she said.

A judge in the Atlanta Municipal Court ultimately tossed out the case and it was appealed to the Superior Court of Fulton County.

The AJC found that the Citgo on MLK Drive made up nearly a quarter of police calls to 14 gas stations along the corridor in the past year and a half. Of the 1,300 police calls made to the business, only 72 arrests were made.

“Our mayor believes in ‘One Safe City,’” said McMichael, who is also the public safety chair of NPU-H. “We need to rally behind his vision and make sure we hold all gas stations and convenience stores accountable for high quality cameras — inside and out.”

But trade associations said they were caught off guard by the City Council surveillance proposal after previously having discussions on other ways to curb the issues with the mayor and Atlanta Police Department.

Jaffer said that while Atlanta’s legislation is much more vague than DeKalb’s, both could pose legal problems if operators are penalized for not complying.

“Public safety is a top priority for these trade associations because it’s their members, their employees, their customers that are impacted by all these criminal activities,” Jaffer said, noting the city and business owners share a common goal. “We need to do something but having just a camera? I don’t think that that’s the (right) approach.”

“I don’t even think you can bring this in under the police power the way city of Atlanta is attempting to do, but that’s sort of battle for another day,” he added.

Jaffer said that high-definition cameras at each pump could cost anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 for businesses to install and officials should prioritize integrating existing surveillance into the city’s extensive camera network.

November 2, 2021 Atlanta: Atlanta police are investigating after a woman was found shot to death early Tuesday morning, Nov. 2, 2021 at a northwest Atlanta gas station. The shooting occurred along Sandy Creek Drive, but police responded to a Citgo gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shortly before 2 a.m. regarding the wounded woman. She was dead when officers arrived. Her name was not released. A gray Jeep was part of the crime scene and investigators had its doors open. Authorities did not say if the woman drove the Jeep from Sandy Creek Drive to the gas station or if she was found inside it. Police said witnesses at the gas station were cooperative but did not say if they saw the shooting. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Who’s responsible?

Ricky Brown gets at least three phone calls a week to escort women he knows to get gas for their cars. If he’s at the station already, he said, he often offers to pump gas for women who pull in at the same time.

“I let them know that I’ll pump their gas for them, to give them some ease,” he said. “Women should not feel unsafe in this community, or any community, to simply just go pump gas.”

The community leader wears a variety of hats from running a business that helps ex-offenders and veterans find work, to play-by-play announcing for Mayor Andre Dickens Midnight Basketball games. He’s also involved in the push to make gas station owners install cameras.

“We’ve got to start holding the gas station owners accountable,” he said. “And when I look at the gas stations, they’re behind bulletproof glass, making hundreds of thousands of dollars while citizens of this community are unsafe with dangers right around the pump.”

Proponents of having extra eyes at the gas pump argue that installing cameras is a small ask to help law enforcement track down criminals who may have escaped without video evidence.

Jaffer with the trade associations used to manage a gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive years ago. But earlier this month he saw a report in the news that his former business was the victim of armed robbery.

“I know how difficult it is to run these convenience stores,” he said, noting the variety of threats from underaged customers trying to buy alcohol to violent theft. “People sometimes think ‘Oh, you know they’re not part of the community. They don’t live here or they make all this money.’ But it’s different than working in McDonald’s.”

“It’s not an easy job or an easy operation to run,” Jaffer said.