Atlanta’s deadliest year in decades has city on edge and demanding change

A special report on the spike in Atlanta homicides in 2020 and why Atlanta’s deadliest year in decades has a city on edge and demanding change.
A special report on the spike in Atlanta homicides in 2020 and why Atlanta’s deadliest year in decades has a city on edge and demanding change.

Credit: Photo illustration by Richard Watkins/AJC

Credit: Photo illustration by Richard Watkins/AJC

Homicides surged 58 percent in 2020

A teen selling water bottles killed over $10. A young man shot at a skate park. A child gunned down on the Fourth of July.

Their deaths were among the 157 homicides the Atlanta Police Department investigated in 2020, up from 99 in 2019 and the most in more than two decades.

“It’s ridiculous that now, even during this pandemic, we got more gun violence going on than ever before,” said Columbus Ward, a longtime activist who lives in Atlanta’s Peoplestown neighborhood. The year’s violence claimed several victims in his community, including Deborah Houston, 59, shot outside a convenience store on Atlanta Avenue in October and Manvel Buckner, 49, shot on Martin Street in December.

ExploreInteractive: Atlanta's 2020 homicide victims

“It’s really scary because you don’t know who’s going to be killed or who’s going to be shot or where those shots are coming from,” Ward said. “It’s just everywhere.”

Indeed, no corner of the city was spared. Kevin Humes, 35, was shot to death in May outside a Buckhead apartment complex. Jalanni Pless, 18, was shot to death in June while selling water in Midtown, the same month Andrew Scott Callahan, 37, was shot near the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark. Kalecia “Pinky” Williams, 16, was shot in December at a downtown hotel.

Police found the remains of a stabbing victim in the Summerhill area on Christmas Day.

The deadly surge has residents and business owners addled while police and city leaders struggle for solutions.

“I’ve never been afraid to get gas or go to the grocery store before,” said Buckhead resident Agie Rutkowski. “Now, if it’s dark outside, I don’t go out.”

Atlanta Police Crime Technician K. Gallagher collects dozens of shell casings following a shooting outside a downtown Atlanta hookah lounge. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Atlanta Police Crime Technician K. Gallagher collects dozens of shell casings following a shooting outside a downtown Atlanta hookah lounge. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Is the mayor to blame?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was hailed after her response to destructive rioting in May after protests over the death of George Floyd devolved into chaos. Glamour featured her in its Women of the Year issue and her national profile soared amid talk of a position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

On Thursday, she announced Biden has nominated her for a position with the Democratic National Committee that would place her in charge of civic engagement and voter protection. Bottoms will continue to serve as mayor of Atlanta, where she’s been criticized by residents and even some civic leaders weary over the 58% rise in homicides.

“Stop minimizing our concerns by telling us that ‘crime is up everywhere.’ Spare us from the lie that the steady outflow of our officers isn’t as bad as it is,” Atlanta City Council member Howard Shook said in a withering statement last month. “It will take a lot to turn this around. But here, in descending order, are the three things we need to begin: leadership, some leadership, any leadership.”

ExploreRayshard Brooks' death brought issues of race, police use of force to forefront

Former APD investigator Lakea Gaither said Bottoms has “lost the confidence of the officers.” An 18-year veteran saluted as Officer of the Year in 2013 and Investigator of the Year in 2015, Gaither was one of 37 officers who either retired or resigned in a single month, August of last year.

More than 200 officers quit in 2020. Many left after Erika Shields stepped down as chief in June, shortly after former Officer Garrett Rolfe shot Rayshard Brooks after a scuffle in a Wendy’s parking lot near downtown. After Bottoms quickly announced that Rolfe had been fired and then-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges, hundreds of officers staged an unofficial “blue flu” in protest.

Shields remained on the city’s payroll, managing public safety initiatives, until leaving earlier this month to become chief of the Louisville, Kentucky police department.

ExploreHomicides up in parts of metro Atlanta, state in 2020

“It was becoming an untenable situation,” Shields told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There were multiple things that made it become too difficult to do my job.”

Popular with the rank and file, Shields declined to comment on Bottoms.

“If the crime rate goes up, that’s going to be on the mayor,” former Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli said after Shields stepped down as Atlanta’s police chief. Seven months later, Atlanta is still without a permanent chief.

“Crime is out of control,” said Amber Connor, who was among a group of residents gathered outside City Hall earlier this month to commemorate homicide victims and demand new leadership. “What are we going to do to fix it?”

Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a Tony Award-nominated stage actor who starred in several films by director Spike Lee, was shot and killed near his southwest Atlanta home last October.

Photo credit: Freedom's Path Feature Film, LLC.
Thomas Jefferson Byrd, a Tony Award-nominated stage actor who starred in several films by director Spike Lee, was shot and killed near his southwest Atlanta home last October. Photo credit: Freedom's Path Feature Film, LLC.

Credit: Freedom's Path Feature Film, LLC.

Credit: Freedom's Path Feature Film, LLC.

Tough questions, few answers

Bottoms notes correctly that Atlanta is among many major U.S. cities that experienced a violent crime surge in 2020.

Chicago recorded 774 homicides in 2020 up from 506 in 2019, according to a database maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times. New York City’s homicide count rose to 462 last year, up nearly 45% from 319 in 2019, The Washington Post reported, citing New York Police Department data.

Preliminary FBI data show killings rose nearly 21% nationwide through just the first nine months of 2020, but experts say the actual increase was even higher, particularly in major cities. Even areas with fewer than 10,000 residents saw 30% increases in killings, said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based data analyst and consultant who tracks crime statistics.

“It's really scary because you don't know who's going to be killed or who's going to be shot or where those shots are coming from. It's just everywhere."

- Columbus Ward, activist in Peoplestown neighborhood

When all the data is collected Asher expects a nationwide spike in homicides somewhere in the 25-30% range, which would be the largest one-year increase since such statistics were collected.

New Orleans saw murder rates increase more than 60%, while homicides in Milwaukee nearly doubled last year. Minneapolis and Philadelphia also saw large increases, according to Asher.

Bottoms says pinning blame on her for Atlanta’s historically high homicide tally is “misplaced frustration.”

One 2020 shooting left a man dead near her southwest Atlanta home even as a patrol car sat outside her house, she noted.

“Even if we had officers on every single corner — and in this instance an officer was literally on the block — homicides can happen,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Wherever people would like to place blame, (that) doesn’t get us any closer to the solution. This is a challenge across the country and we’re all trying to wrap our arms around it.”

Andrew Scott Callahan was shot and killed near the Old Fourth Ward skatepark on June 28, 2020.
Andrew Scott Callahan was shot and killed near the Old Fourth Ward skatepark on June 28, 2020.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

The national rise in crime coincided with the deadly coronavirus and the mass lockdowns it spurred, as well as the increased scrutiny of law enforcement following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Nirej Sekhon, an associate law professor at Georgia State University who specializes in criminal procedure and police practices, believes anxiety over coronavirus and outrage over police brutality contributed to last year’s deadly spike.

“It’s not just Atlanta,” he said. “It’s hard to find a city where homicides are not up significantly from 2019.”

By early December, Atlanta’s murder rate rivaled Chicago’s, prompting some to call Atlanta “the Chicago of the South.” (Coincidentally, one of the year’s homicide victims included Chicago rapper King Von. The entertainer, whose real name was Dayvon Bennett, was one of several people shot in November in the parking lot of the Monaco Hookah Lounge on Trinity Avenue. He’d come to town for his album release party.)

“It's not just Atlanta. It's hard to find a city where homicides are not up significantly from 2019."

- Nirej Sekhon, an associate law professor at Georgia State University

Bottoms calls the Chicago tag “political fodder.”

“We are not the Chicago of the South,” she said. “We are Atlanta and we own our challenges and we own our responsibility to address those challenges. We’re going to continue to address crime in our city but we’re also going to continue to address those systemic issues that lead to crime in communities.”

Another little girl lost

Four days before Christmas, 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie was riding in a car with her aunt and mother after an evening of shopping. As they drove past Phipps Plaza gunshots rang out and a bullet entered their car, striking Kennedy. She died in the hospital five days later.

Kennedy Maxie
Kennedy Maxie

The shooting prompted widespread outrage and the blistering statement from Councilman Shook, who called the child’s death the “latest and most painful example of the utter lawlessness that defines what it means to live in Atlanta.”

Bottoms addressed the rise in deadly crime at a somber news conference a few days after Kennedy’s death.

“It’s hard and it hurts and it’s unacceptable,” she said. “We were here with Secoriea Turner’s family and now we’re back here again.”

Secoriea died July 4 after gunmen fired into the car she was riding in with her mother. She was 8. Six months later, one man - who admits being at the scene but says he didn’t fire - has been charged in the case. Police say several others were also responsible.

Secoriea Turner
Secoriea Turner

On Jan. 6, Daquan Reed was arrested in Virginia and charged in Kennedy’s shooting death. Police said Reed had gotten into an argument in the parking lot outside Saks Fifth Avenue at Phipps Plaza and, as he left, fired three times from his car.

“If there’s something that we’re not doing, if there’s something we haven’t enacted, if there’s something we need to do better, my ego is small enough to ask you what we can and should do differently,” Bottoms said.

ExploreAtlanta’s 2020 homicides: How the AJC reported this story

City Council President Felicia Moore, considered a potential challenger to Bottoms in November’s mayoral election, said the city is “not in a good place.”

“We’re either waking up to the news or hearing about it as it’s happening all over the city.” said Moore, who believes a change in strategy is needed. “It’s not just going to automatically stop.”

New Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis, who decisively ousted six-term incumbent Paul Howard last year, pledged to be unsparing with violent offenders.

“I don’t want people to think any longer that Fulton County is a place where they can commit crime and get away with it,” Willis said.

 Police investigate a body discovered in the back seat of a pickup truck in the middle of a southwest Atlanta road Aug. 25, 2020.
Police investigate a body discovered in the back seat of a pickup truck in the middle of a southwest Atlanta road Aug. 25, 2020.

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Changes ahead

Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant said his department will work more closely with federal task forces as they ease policies that previously prohibited officers from wearing body cameras during joint operations.

The department has also reinstated its chase policy, which Shields had scrapped. New protocols require officers to get supervisor approval before engaging in a chase, and only when the suspect presents an imminent threat to public safety.

Bottoms, meanwhile, has formed a committee of city officials who will explore ways to crack down on so-called “nuisance properties” that have become hotspots for violent crime throughout Atlanta. She has also instructed city departments to be more aggressive in targeting bars and nightclubs that violate occupancy limits and remain open later than they’re allowed.

Investigators collect evidence following the fatal shooting of an up-and-coming Chicago rapper King Von outside a downtown Atlanta lounge last November.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Investigators collect evidence following the fatal shooting of an up-and-coming Chicago rapper King Von outside a downtown Atlanta lounge last November. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

“We also will focus additional resources on our enforcement targeting gangs and gun violence,” she said recently, adding the police department will continue its partnership with the FBI targeting Atlanta’s most dangerous offenders, step up patrols in certain areas and team up with newly elected Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to get more deputies on city streets during peak hours.

Chicago rapper King Von, whose real name was Dayvon Bennett, was shot and killed last November during his album release party in downtown Atlanta.
Chicago rapper King Von, whose real name was Dayvon Bennett, was shot and killed last November during his album release party in downtown Atlanta.

Credit: Instagram

Credit: Instagram

It isn’t clear how long Bryant, who came out of retirement to succeed Shields, will helm the department. Bottoms has yet to begin a nationwide search, saying that with so many cities looking for new chiefs, now is not the best time. Officers interviewed by the AJC say Bryant is well-liked and respected but seems beholden to the mayor, a perception underscored by the ongoing interim status.

“They need to overhaul the leadership,” said former APD investigator Gaither. She said she believes an outsider is needed; the city has promoted its last three police chiefs from within.

Officers have told the AJC that morale has sunk as the force has grown smaller. The department is down about 400 officers below what’s been authorized. While 115 recruits were hired in 2020, they’re still in training, a department spokesman said.

Bryant says officer morale is stabilizing and turnover is slowing, but acknowledges there’s more work to do as city officials hope for a less deadly 2021.

ExploreAJC Editorial: Mayor Bottoms, you must do more to curb homicides

Stan Crowder, an associate criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University, isn’t surprised morale dropped after criminal charges were brought against several officers amid last summer’s protests.

“The way law enforcement officers were treated by the district attorney and by politicians, you can see their hesitancy and lack of initiative because they don’t know who’s in their corner anymore,” he said. “That’s the reason APD has taken such a significant hit in the strength of the agency. Folks aren’t going to stay in places where they don’t feel comfortable.”

Moore, the City Council president, said the department needs permanent leadership and a better working relationship with City Hall.

“In 2021, we cannot have a repeat of what’s going on this year,” she said. “And that’s going to mean addressing police accountability, but that’s also going to mean we have to support the police.”

Closure slow to come

Most of last year’s homicides are still unsolved, according to the latest department data. As of this week, arrests have been made in just 73 of the 157 murder cases.

Shayla Brooks, whose younger sister, Shaheerah Brooks, was fatally shot last August near a playground bench in Atlanta’s West End Park, worries her sibling’s case will be forgotten.

Shaheerah Brooks
Shaheerah Brooks

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Shaheerah, a 33-year-old mother of three, struggled with mental health issues and eventually slipped into homelessness, her sister said. She’d been living on the streets for about a year, and was reported missing by her family several months before she died.

After Shaheerah’s death, her family printed flyers and circulated her photo. Nobody called. Months later, the family still has no answers and is struggling to reach the detective investigating the murder, Shayla Brooks said last month.

“We really don’t know what’s going on with my sister’s case,” she said last month. “We haven’t heard anything.

Joseph Benjamin, a father and mixed martial arts fighter who worked as a stunt double on locally filmed blockbusters, was shot and killed Sept. 30 while working security at an Edgewood apartment complex. No one has been charged in the 40-year-old's death.
Joseph Benjamin, a father and mixed martial arts fighter who worked as a stunt double on locally filmed blockbusters, was shot and killed Sept. 30 while working security at an Edgewood apartment complex. No one has been charged in the 40-year-old's death.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Ward, the Peoplestown activist, would like to see a greater police presence in his community.

“There have been so many crimes that are unsolved, cases where arrests haven’t been made. It’s like we don’t get the attention that we should get with all this gun violence going on,” Ward said. “The police visibility is still very lacking in all our neighborhoods. I know some officers are doing a good job, but we just don’t see the overall police presence that we would like.”

— AJC staff writer Alexis Stevens and data journalist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

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