Crime ripple whips up political waves

Violent crimes recently in east Atlanta have scared the hell out of residents. Last month, there was a car theft-turned-killing in the parking lot of the “Murder Kroger” on Ponce de Leon Avenue, just next to the Beltline. There were two men executed after leaving a bar in Little Five Points. This was just minutes after an armed robbery near the Virginia Highland nightlife area.

And then, to rub it all in, two pistol-wielding punks walked into Augustine’s, a bar near Grant Park, and robbed the business and all its customers. That one hit home for two reasons.

One, security camera footage of a gunman walking from one terrified diner to the next made for powerful TV. And two, the joint used to be called the Standard bar and was Ground Zero for raucous debate about crime during the 2009 mayoral elections. That year, its bartender was shot to death almost as an afterthought by young gang members. The wanton callousness of it was an affront to a constituency that knew how to organize and make a stink.

A former state legislator named Kasim Reed ran a tough-on-crime campaign, saying things people wanted to hear. He said he wanted to employ a “muscular” approach to fighting crime, an odd way to describe a strategy. But I thought at the time it was a clever way to distinguish himself from his two chief challengers, who were women.

It worked. As mayor, Reed has come through on his pledge of achieving the Holy Grail of Atlanta public safety — 2,000 cops — and crime is down more than 20 percent since 2009.

Still, he and his police chief, George Turner, recently faced an auditorium full of angry people.

Those gathered lived in police zones 3 and 6, two of APD’s six zones. Zone 6 includes all the neighborhoods named above, as well the Old Fourth Ward, the historic black neighborhood now gentrifying because of the Beltline. Zone 3 includes areas to the south and west, which include Turner Field, Sylvan Hills and Mechanicsville and neighborhoods without the same pizzazz or clout as the Zone 6.

In 2014, residents in Zone 3 witnessed 30 murders, just one less than Zone 1, which is the west side.

Zone 6 had five murders last year. But at the forum, the people from that area seemed more on edge.

Reason being? Well, everything is relative. Last year, Zone 6 saw the biggest decrease in major crimes in the city, dropping 12 percent. This is an area with active community groups, nosy neighbors, off-duty cop patrols and media-savvy associations.

This year, however, through early April, Zone 6 experienced an 11 percent increase in major crimes. It had four murders, just one less than all of last year. Zone 3 has had three killings so far.

The recent killings in Zone 6 “are the kind of homicides that tweak people’s sense of crime — stranger on stranger,” said Volkan Topalli, a Georgia State University criminologist I called on to add some studied opinion and make sense of it all. And because he has a cool name.

“There’s a lot of urban pioneers moving in (to Zone 6),” he said. As a result, “the access offenders have to victims increases. That is the pain of growth. It’s an interesting time to look at crime in Atlanta. The city is going through so many changes, so fast.”

Back to the mayor, facing the crowd.

Reed said he wanted to come and “look you in the eye.”

“I am sorry for what you are going through,” he told the crowd. “We’re going to fix it. We are going to fix it.”

He did what all great leaders do, he was definitive and took responsibility for the problem. He owned it. Well, not exactly all of it.

Reed noted that Fulton County’s court system is a “revolving door” of repeat offenders being allowed to do what they do best — repeatedly offend.

“But rather than criticize our county partners, we’re going to push harder on our county partners,” he said.

Listening to the chief and police commanders, Atlanta cops are like fishermen sitting on the dock of a well-stocked lake, hauling in catch after catch. Only they notice that lots of them have more than one hook in their mouths, because they’ve been caught before.

In this analogy, the fishing enterprise is one of catch-and-release, with the courts doing the releasing.

A study by the Atlanta Police Foundation looked at serial ne’er-do-wells and the havoc they wreak, making it a tossup as to whether you’ll wake up to find your car in your driveway after parking it there the previous evening.

The study discovered that in a 32-month period, just 461 criminals generated 14,412 arrests — or 31 apiece, which takes a combination of serious dysfunction and dedication.

District Attorney Paul Howard talked about a different set of figures: Out of 389 cases his office sent to Superior Court,  326 got shunted to the “non-complex court,” which is also called the “rocket docket.”  That’s a system set up years ago to move lower-level cases from the clogged system and let judges move the big cases.

Howard, just fresh from the APS teacher trial, also complained that in 262 cases where the culprit pleaded guilty, 92 percent of the sentences were meted out by judges without allowing a prosecutor to argue what the sentence should be. He said the sentences are almost always lenient. Hence, the spinning door. He said just two magistrates handle the non-complex cases.

“Why is that?” he asked. “Especially since a lot of those crimes are the ones citizens and the police are complaining about.”

The judges’ office didn’t get back to me. They have complained that the DA overcharges cases and is rigid about taking lesser sentences, which clogs the system.

The police foundation is scheduled to release its complete report, with recommendations, in a couple weeks.

There are neighborhoods full of worried and angry Atlantans who hope that something comes of it.

NOTE: In a column last week, I mistakenly wrote that longtime conservative commentator Dick Williams, a friend and kindly fellow, tilted to the right of Benito Mussolini. While it’s rumored that Dick has a Barry Goldwater security blanket, he has never advocated for world domination.

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