Murders in Atlanta are way up, but overall crime is way down

Trump’s ‘crime-infested’ epithet misses the mark
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (second from left) introduces her command staff after taking her oath of office Jan. 10. Curtis Compton/

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (second from left) introduces her command staff after taking her oath of office Jan. 10. Curtis Compton/

When it comes to homicide, 2016 was Atlanta’s deadliest year in nearly a decade. The city recorded 111 murders — the first time since 2008 the city’s homicide rate topped the century mark and a 39 percent increase from when Mayor Kasim Reed was elected to the first of two terms.

Murders have risen in Atlanta in each of the past three years, but even that spike lends little credence to President Donald Trump's recent claim that Georgia's 5th District is "crime-infested."

But a different set of stats paints a much more optimistic picture that Mayor Reed can — and does — point to with pride. Since he took office in 2009, overall crime in Atlanta is down 27 percent, with sharp declines in burglaries (9,102 in 2009 to 4,377 in 2016), robberies (2,622 to 1,914) and aggravated assaults (2,602 to 2,179). Criminologists say those numbers provide a more accurate barometer of crime trends because they affect more people.

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“(Reed’s) record is one of the best in the country,” said Robert Friedmann, director of the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange and a professor emeritus of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

Friedmann points to the mayor's focus on putting more officers on the street. Though Reed's goal of a 2,000-officer force has proven difficult to maintain — currently about 150 officers short — the department had just shy of 1,600 officers when Reed was first elected.

“He understood the importance of having a strong police force and put his money where his mouth is,” Friedmann said.

Police Chief Erika Shields speaks to reporters on Jan. 6 ahead a winter storm expected to hit much of North Georgia. Branden Camp / For the AJC

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‘Crimes that shake the public’s confidence’

Reed is keenly aware of the numbers, good and bad.

“While we’ve made progress, the surge of murders is troubling,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview last week. He said his newly appointed police chief, Erika Shields, will be introducing a detailed plan to combat the increase within the next two weeks.

“We’re developing new strategies to deal with the rise in murders, carjackings, crimes that shake the public’s confidence,” the mayor said.

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The increase in homicides follows a troubling trend nationwide, one that seems to baffle law enforcement and criminologists alike. The statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight recently reported that cities with populations of more than 250,000 people saw murders rise roughly 11.3 percent in 2016. That's down from the 14.8 percent increase the previous year but, collectively, 2015-2016 saw the highest two-year increase in a quarter-century.

According to Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Darryl Tolleson, 40 of 65 major U.S. cities experienced an uptick in murders. Atlanta’s homicide rate jumped 17 percent from 2015, but that seems mild compared to cities such as San Antonio (up 61 percent), Chicago (59 percent), Memphis (56 percent), Louisville (44 percent), Phoenix (36 percent) and Las Vegas (31 percent).

According to FiveThirtyEight, which used internal police numbers and media reports — official government numbers won't be available until September — Atlanta's murder rate was the 10th highest in the nation, with 23.9 murders per 100,000 residents.

Shootings, up 49 percent since 2009, have fueled the increase, Tolleson said.

“We seized more drugs than in 2015, we seized more guns,” he said.

Police Chief George Turner and Mayor Kasim Reed at a city hall press conference in December at which Reed announced that deputy chief Erika Shields would succeed the retiring Turner. John Spink /

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

‘Didn’t have the success that we hoped’

But Tolleson acknowledged that Operation Whiplash, characterized by the mayor as an “all hands on deck approach” when it began last summer, “didn’t have the success that we hoped.”

“But when you look at where we were going, we did slow (the murder rate) down some,” Tolleson said.

The initiative targeted 33 of Atlanta’s most crime-plagued neighborhoods, assigning 65 uniformed officers to patrol those areas with an emphasis on gun-related incidents and intelligence gathering.

“Many of our people who shoot folks are repeat offenders,” Tolleson said. “Either we apprehended them and they got back out or they were never actually apprehended.”

As he has throughout his tenure as mayor, Reed said Fulton County judges have been a major impediment in combating crime. He pointed to a recent study conducted by the Atlanta Police Department that found 461 offenders were responsible for 10,000 crimes committed between 2011 and 2013. Of those, only 16 were sent to prison.

While there has been progress — Reed says more than half of those repeat offenders are now being locked up — it remains a significant problem, so much so that the mayor urged his successor to make that “the issue of the day when it comes to public safety.”

High-profile crime vs. good statistics

Whether crime emerges as a major issue in this year’s mayoral election remains to be seen. As Reed’s predecessor, Shirley Franklin, discovered in 2009, even large-scale statistical progress doesn’t always insulate elected officials.

During Franklin’s two terms, FBI data show that crime dropped 40 percent. From 2000 to 2002, Atlanta had the nation’s highest rate of violent crime — the combined total number of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults per 100,000 residents. By the end of the decade, however, murders were down nearly 50 percent. So were robberies.

But a series of high-profile crimes, starting with the murder of popular Grant Park bartender John Henderson and continuing through the summer with the fatal shooting of a former welterweight boxing champion Vernon Forrest, mobilized the citizenry. Franklin and then-Police Chief Richard Pennington pointed to the improving stats, saying concerns about crime were more perception than reality.

“Kasim jumped on that train,” said Sara Riney, a Grant Park resident who became an active member in Atlantans Together Against Crime, a citizens group that put the issue on the front burner in the mayor’s race. “No one was talking about public safety and he recognized the city was upset and didn’t feel the previous administration was taking the issue seriously.”

‘We’ve lost a lot of veteran officers’

Riney acknowledged the mayor’s efforts but said much work remains.

“We’ve lost a whole lot of veteran police officers over the last eight years and that’s had an impact,” she said. “I think a lot of the new officers are not as familiar with the neighborhoods as they should be.”

Union leaders with the local International Brotherhood of Police Officers, who have often been at loggerheads with the mayor over pay, have pointed to figures that show 45 percent of officers hired between 2005 and 2013 have left the force.

Reed told The AJC the high turnover is a concern, saying many of the officers hired when economic times were especially tough didn’t view police work as a career but a stopgap.

“We have to continue to increase pay and resources,” he said. “The police force has to get back up to 2,000 officers. One hundred and twenty, 130 more officers on the street makes a huge difference.”