In Buckhead, familiar debates arise over crime and influence

A billboard promoting the need for police officers is displayed at the intersection of Peachtree and East Paces Ferry roads in Buckhead in September. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
A billboard promoting the need for police officers is displayed at the intersection of Peachtree and East Paces Ferry roads in Buckhead in September. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Race and street racing part of conversation over safety in Buckhead

Before this year, Howard Shook, a long-serving Atlanta city councilman, said he would normally get one or two calls a year from his Buckhead neighbors who were concerned about nearby gunfire.

“Now, it’s weekly," Shook said. “Among many spikes and concerns about crime, this one’s the loudest on the decibel meter.”

In a swath of Atlanta known for its wealth, political influence and high-end shopping options, some Buckhead residents and officials say they are on edge over a rise in crime and a lack of security. Buckhead’s commercial corridors have been the scene of several shootings and an increase in nighttime street racing in recent months.

Buckhead residents have provided hours of public comment during recent Atlanta City Council meetings and pressured city and police officials to take aggressive new steps to combat street racing and other crimes. The council is scheduled to vote Monday on tougher laws to punish alleged street racers.

But even with those changes and a decade of declining crime numbers, many neighbors said they feel like they aren’t being listened to. They worry Atlanta police, especially the officers in their zone, aren’t given enough resources and support to deal with criminals.

Atlanta police responded to a shooting at the Shell gas station on Peachtree Road in Buckhead on Sept. 8, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Atlanta police responded to a shooting at the Shell gas station on Peachtree Road in Buckhead on Sept. 8, 2020. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“It’s a lot more in-your-face. When was the last time you remember gunfire going off in Neiman Marcus?" said Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, referencing the recent shooting inside the Lenox Mall department store.

The outcry from Buckhead — and the city’s swift response — has led some to question the political influence the area and its leaders hold. While other areas of town also struggle with crime and have their own concerns, it feels like Buckhead’s complaints sometimes get quicker action from City Hall, critics say.

“It’s very interesting how Buckhead has made a stink over street racing over the course of a couple of weeks, and the city has responded in this way,” said Devin Barrington-Ward, the founder of The Black Futurists Group, a local social justice organization.

In a press conference last week, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms dismissed those notions, saying her administration works with “every community across this city that needs our attention.”

‘It’s all over the city'

Despite the outsized attention often placed on Buckhead, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s new analysis of police data shows its rate of serious crime has remained lower than the city’s crime rate as a whole over the last 10 years. The number of serious crimes reported in Buckhead’s neighborhoods went down about 11% from 2009 to 2019, data shows, reflecting citywide trends that show a decrease in crime.

This year, Buckhead hasn’t seen a spike in homicides, like the rest of Atlanta has. Compared to 2019, serious crimes are down 14% in Zone 2, which covers Buckhead, according to Atlanta police. While Buckhead’s Zone 2 has reported decreases in larceny and burglaries in the first 10 months of 2020, it has seen an uptick in aggravated assault and car thefts compared to the same time period in 2019. Residents also say they are more rattled this year by quality-of-life crimes like street racing, gunshots and noise from restaurants and bars.

Neighbors have become scared and frustrated “because there’s nothing being done,” said Charles Meriwether, who lives in the Garden Hills neighborhood near Peachtree. He said he can sometimes hear noise from cars and gunfire from his home. “Today, there’s just a lawlessness that prevails in the city. ... It’s kind of a repeat of the days of old.”

The “days of old” were the early 2000s, when neighbors and local leaders grew worried about crime stemming from nightclubs along Peachtree Road. One headline in the AJC in 2002 stated, “Buckhead residents feel loss of safety.”

Buckhead Village was a wild entertainment district until a double killing on the evening of the Super Bowl XXXIV triggered a change. The neighborhood is now the site of an upscale outdoor mall. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Buckhead Village was a wild entertainment district until a double killing on the evening of the Super Bowl XXXIV triggered a change. The neighborhood is now the site of an upscale outdoor mall. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

An outcry by Buckhead neighbors at the time led the city to crack down on the club scene there with stricter enforcement, earlier closing times and new parking requirements. Many of those clubs have since closed, replaced by the Buckhead Village District now made up of luxury designer stores like Dior, Hermès and Jimmy Choo.

Despite Buckhead residents’ willingness to carry complaints to elected officials, some acknowledge they see less crime than the rest of the city. The area also has more security than normal; over 90% of Buckhead’s 43 neighborhoods pay for extra security patrols or cameras.

Gordon Certain has lived for 45 years in the neighborhood of North Buckhead, which he said is “pretty darn safe," though they have seen occasional spikes in burglaries and car break-ins. Certain understands people living closer to the major corridors in Buckhead and throughout the city have more concerns about their safety, especially with the prevalence of street racing.

“That’s just horrible. And people are warranted in feeling terrible,” said Certain. “Compared to that kind of problem, my neighborhood is closer to heaven."

Crime is a problem “not just in Buckhead, but in East Atlanta … it’s in southwest Atlanta, where I live, it’s all over the city,” Mayor Bottoms said during a recent press briefing. “It’s a problem for the entire city as a whole.”

The difference with Buckhead, she said, is there’s “often just a more public, elevated conversation just by nature of the community." The mayor said she has worked to heal the “real divisions” that lingered between her office and communities like Buckhead when she took office. Buckhead voters overwhelmingly supported Bottoms' opponent Mary Norwood in the 2017 mayoral election.

For her part, Norwood agrees with Bottoms that the recent rise in crime is a citywide issue that’s not isolated to Buckhead. Norwood, who is now the chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, does not believe Buckhead residents have voiced more serious concerns than the rest of the city.

“Sometimes, there may have been more publicity” related to Buckhead, Norwood said, “but that is not an indication of the citizens' concerns.”

New measures prompt questions

This fall, as concerns about street racing grew from Buckhead residents, Atlanta police launched several new tactics to combat the activity, which usually involves drivers showing off their cars and doing stunts in front of a cheering crowd. Reports from APD show that areas in downtown, Midtown and southwest Atlanta have been hotspots for street racing offenses, in addition to Buckhead.

Atlanta councilmembers will vote Monday on proposed changes in city law that would make it harder for people arrested on street racing charges to bond out of jail quickly. The measure has been cheered by Buckhead residents and community leaders, but it was criticized by criminal justice advocates like Barrington-Ward, who say the proposed ordinance is a excessive step meant to appease Buckhead residents.

Eight acres of clubs and bars in Buckhead used to be the heart of Atlanta. (AJC file photo/2003)
Eight acres of clubs and bars in Buckhead used to be the heart of Atlanta. (AJC file photo/2003)

Credit: AJC 2003

Credit: AJC 2003

The racial dynamics of the situation are hard to ignore. Buckhead is mostly white, while the groups being targeted in connection with street racing are largely made up of people of color. That, too, is a discussion Buckhead is used to. In the early 2000s, some wondered whether the crackdown on clubs sent the message that Black Atlantans were not welcome in Buckhead. Today, it’s a question of whether the needs of other communities are being ignored at the expense of Buckhead.

“All we’re saying is, ‘Wow what would life look like for Bankhead if we got the same level of attention?’” Barrington-Ward said.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore acknowledged the perception that Buckhead gets special treatment from the city, due to its reputation and the greater media coverage it often attracts. Moore said that narrative is largely untrue, though there have been some crime issues that first bubbled up on the southside or in northwest Atlanta, but not until “it started getting into the news and it happened in Buckhead was the effort taken to do something about it,” she said.

Buckhead also is more organized than other swaths of the city, Moore said, with over 40 individual neighborhoods that often come together and speak with one voice when advocating to the city.

Bottoms said the city doesn’t “focus on one community at the expense of another, but we recognize that how we respond has to be a more tailored community approach. It’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all."

Audience specialist Mandi Albright contributed to this report.

By the numbers:

11% - Decrease in serious crimes reported in Buckhead from 2009 to 2019

14% - Decrease in serious crimes in Buckhead this year, compared to 2019

21% - Increase in aggravated assaults in Buckhead this year

25% - Increase in car thefts in Buckhead this year

7 - Number of homicides in Buckhead this year

109 - Number of homicides in other parts of the city this year

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