On Christmas Eve, 18-year-old Joshua Watson was found dead near the intersection of Lakewood Avenue and Metropolitan Parkway in southwest Atlanta.
He’d been shot in the head and apparently robbed returning home on the bus from work, police said.
Despite Watson’s killing, and another two days later that culminated the year, Atlanta recorded the second fewest homicides in 50 years, police said.
That benchmark was a 3 percent improvement over 2011 that, despite a slight uptick in property thefts, gave the city an overall 5 percent dip in total crime, police officials said.
According to annual data released by the Atlanta police showing actual numbers of homicides over the years, 85 killings were recorded last year, compared to 88 in 2011.
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Only 2009, with a recorded 80 homicides, was lower than any year dating back to 1963, police records show.
Other violent crimes dropped last year as well, police report.
Rape was down 24 percent, aggravated assault dropped 2 percent and robbery saw a 1 percent decrease, according to police records. These numbers jibe with national trends that show, based on FBI data, a gradual decline in violent crime rates.
The data showed that improvement is needed, however, in tamping down property crimes.
While citywide numbers show a 19 percent drop in burglaries, a 2 percent drop in auto thefts and a decrease of 5 percent in other larcenies, thefts from cars has risen 2 percent.
“We constantly remind motorists to leave nothing of value in vehicles that may tempt thieves,” police spokesman Carlos Campos said. “We have launched a ‘Clean Car’ campaign that reminds people to leave a clean car devoid of valuables such as laptops, GPS units, purses, loose change, firearms and other often-targeted items.”
Even with the improving numbers, there exist perceptions that crime in Atlanta remains high.
Forbes Magazine, for example, last year rated Atlanta the sixth most dangerous city of 200,000 or more to live in, using the FBI’s 2011 annual Uniform Crime Reports, which produces crime rates based upon a per capita equation released in September. Detroit topped the list, followed by St. Louis.
“The introduction to the list notes that such comparisons of crime reports are discouraged, for a number of reasons. So, we choose to simply focus on our mission,” Campos said. “Our job is to reduce crime, and we’ve done that in double-digit percentages since Mayor (Kasim) Reed and Chief (George) Turner took office.”
According to the FBI rating, Atlanta recorded 1,433 violent crimes per every 100,000 residents in 2011.
Campos said the FBI audits the department’s crime statistics each year to produce its own report each fall and “should be considered official” numbers.
Nonetheless, APD officials are happy with what they are seeing.
“I think the city has taken a stance of being aggressive on crime,” police homicide unit commander Lt. Paul Guerrucci told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
APD officials say the improved numbers are the result of a new approach to crime prevention.
“It’s a whole approach that we in the police department have taken,” Deputy Chief Renee’ Propes said Wednesday, speaking primarily about the gradual reduction in homicides, but addressing the broader issue of crime prevention and the recent downturn. “We’re trying to work smarter rather than harder.”
Use of felony murder laws – that is, Georgia’s “party to a crime” statute allowing for charging suspects who’ve committed a felony that may not have necessarily have been murder, but directly or indirectly resulted in someone’s death – has helped to make a difference, Guerrucci said.
“Based on the law, more people can be held responsible for their role” in a homicide, he said, acknowledging the part local prosecutors often play in helping to push such charges.
So a getaway driver in a robbery that ends in murder, like the wheelman who remains at large for the Nov. 12 murder of Lee Lowery III, can expect local prosecutors to add felony murder to the charge of armed robbery.
Also, Denorris Turner and Shaheed Huff, arrested in connection with the Oct. 5 shooting death of 23-year-old Graham Stephen Sisk, face possible life in prison if convicted for their alleged parts in the incident — each was also charged with the underlying felony of aggravated assault.
“And it takes people off the street who may commit homicides in the future,” Guerrucci said.
Another initiative Propes pointed to that has helped curb murder has been the violent repeat offender program, a collaboration with a number of local and federal agencies targeting career criminals.
“We’re targeting individuals that have been our biggest problems and hopefully getting them out of the community before they can commit those murders,” she said. “Getting the prosecutors to help us with keeping these guys in jail.”
Guerrucci said the death of Watson, who was killed on Christmas Eve, presents an example of the types of crime police are working to prevent.
“Certainly, nothing we saw about the victim would’ve contributed to this,” he said. “He was doing everything right, and this happens.”
Homicide detectives are still investigating Watson’s killing and ask that anyone with information about the incident call Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477 to provide an anonymous tip and possibly qualify for a reward.
That death was a low point in Zone 3, the southernmost of the department’s six policing zones, which officials say enjoyed a 30 percent drop in violent crimes last year.
This came despite beat changes that, while removing the Grant Park neighborhood, added the Thomasville area along its eastern border where police say gang activity is prevalent.
Zone 3 also includes the Pittsburgh community, where early last year, video footage showing alleged gang members attacking and beating a gay man amid homophobic slurs went viral on the Internet, highlighting the violence in that neighborhood.
LaShawn Hoffman, with the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, said the incident helped to galvanize that neighborhood and bring residents and businesses together with police and other organizations outside to turn the community around.
“Our work with the police has helped us reduce crime,” Hoffman said. “Our proactiveness in working with Atlanta Police Department and building that relationship helps us.”
The push by Mayor Reed since being elected in 2009 to employ 2,000 officers has allowed the department to assign more than 50 officers to the Community Oriented Policing Section, sending more officers on the street working on proactive initiatives.
“Community-oriented policing is about getting into these neighborhoods and developing these relationships,” said Propes, who now oversees police field operations and police patrolling. “You can do more when you’ve got more people. Instead of being so 911-driven, it gives (officers) time to get back to interacting with the citizens.”