Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Shawn Jones answers a resident's question before a packed Joint Neighborhood Crime and Safety Meeting at Zoo Atlanta on July 10, 2013.
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Residents: Crime perception based on painful fact

Burglars victimize a DeKalb County woman eight times; bandits shoot a woman in the leg while she walks her dog in Edgewood.

And in East Atlanta, gunmen kill three people, at least two of them in robberies.

Those are just three of the reasons that neighborhoods in eastern Atlanta and, increasingly, in DeKalb County and Decatur are up in arms about a crime increase that Atlanta’s police chief and mayor have said is more perception than fact. No, many residents say: It is a fact.

Mayor Kasim Reed and Chief George Turner have voiced concern about recent high-profile crimes’ impact on victims and communities, but they’ve referenced crime statistics that show a downward trend.

That is true for crime overall — from traffic arrests to murder. It is not true when it comes to crimes that typically fuel residential anger: Robberies are up 15 percent, burglaries up 5 percent and auto theft up 2 percent in the 12 months ending in June, according to APD figures.

“Between the burglaries, muggings, and murders, this neighborhood is starting to feel like a damn war zone, or at best, the wild west,” wrote Matt McWilliams, who recently moved into East Atlanta. “I thought we were buying in a nice, hip, albeit transitional neighborhood, but now we don’t feel as if we can set foot outside our home.’

In the relatively affluent area police call Zone 6 — with its gentrifying Old Fourth Ward, Kirkwood and East Atlanta neighborhoods — where complaints about crime are loudest right now, robberies are up 37 percent and burglaries are up 68 percent for the 12-month period. Robberies rose from 143 for the 12-month period ending in June 2012 to 196 for the 12-month period ending this June; and burglaries jumped from 293 to 491.

“I work with numbers every day and you can dice and splice them any way you want to to have an outcome in your favor,” said Kevin Spigener, president of the East Atlanta Community Association. “But this is the worse I have seen it in a decade here.”

Spigener was among more than 300 residents from Peoplestown to unincorporated DeKalb County at a packed meeting this week at Zoo Atlanta auditorium. Crime was the topic. Spigener brought thunderous applause and a few objections when he said teenagers — as young as 13 — weren’t “kids” if they carried a gun and robbed or shot people. “Kids like to ride bikes,” he said. “These people are not kids so let’s just call them like they are. They are criminals.”

Fears and frustration of intown neighborhoods came uncorked in May with the murder of Patrick Cotrona in East Atlanta. Cotrona’s death followed the shooting of 22-year-old Saman Balkhanian in Grant Park on May 17 as he walked back from a Braves game. He lost an eye but survived. Two days later, Henry Omar Reeves, 27, was shot dead on Metropolitan Avenue in East Atlanta. Last week, Camease Miller, 30, was found shot to death in her East Atlanta home in what police suspect was a robbery.

“Nobody cares until white people are killed,” someone at the gathering called out, which sparked an emotional retort from Jackson Faw, a Peoplestown neighborhood leader. Faw, who is white, described the impact of having his black friend and neighbor, 54-year-old David McReynolds, shot to death last year.

Faw said he wouldn’t be a passive victim. “I have a (gun) carry permit, I train often,” said Faw, who lives in police Zone 3. “I believe it is important to have self-defense for your family.”

Atlanta Deputy Chief Renee Propes, who oversees the zones, said different neighborhoods often draw a different type of criminal. At least two of the three young men arrested in McReynolds’ killing in Grant Park near Peoplestown had strong ties to the area.

In East Atlanta and other sections of Zone 6, however, bars and restaurants draw bandits looking for victims on the street at night. Propes said that can make crime-fighting more difficult because it’s harder to nail down a usable pattern among robbers who prowl for opportunities like Eric Hill.

Last Sunday, Hill was walking from East Atlanta Village to his home off Glenwood Avenue at 2 a.m. when three young men he estimated to be in their late teens approached him from behind and pressed a gun to his head. One carried an AK-47 style rifle and another had a semi-automatic pistol, Hill said.

After he told them he didn’t have any cash, they settled for his cellphone. One whined about the meager score. “They didn’t even pat me down for my wallet,” said Hill, 28. “That’s what surprised me. If you have the money to have those type of guns, why are you robbing me for my Metro PCS phone?”

Myron Polster, who heads the East Atlanta security patrol that employs off-duty police, tried to put the crime picture in perspective. Three killings in two months are enormous for East Atlanta, but other significant types of crime were static in APD beat 612, which encompasses East Atlanta, despite a spike in the larger zone. In June, he said, the beat had one robbery. There had been 11 robberies since Jan. 1 and 22 in the past 12 months, said Polster, who collects crime statistics from APD.

“Not an out-of-control problem,” he said. “You can debate forever whether 22 is too many. It is like with airplanes. Are you going to pay what it costs to never crash or $300 to fly.”

Police suspect that a handful of gangs, usually loosely organized, were responsible for the lion’s share of the robberies and burglaries across the zone and into DeKalb County, and once they are caught the crime will drop, Propes said. As police saturate an area with officers to tamp crime down, the police presence invariably simply pushes roaming criminals elsewhere, she said.

“Zone 6 tends to have a lot of perpetrators operating in groups,” she said. “Very young perpetrators. At least two victims in robberies said the (robber) looked like he was 10 years old.”

At the Zoo meeting Wednesday, DeKalb residents who live just outside East Atlanta complained about the response to their 911 calls by DeKalb police. One woman said she had been burglarized eight times in two months.

DeKalb Police Chief Cedric Alexander said he was going to “surge” 25 officers into the area that bordered East Atlanta.

Peggy Baughns will be glad to see that. The first time thieves broke into her townhouse they stole her grandson’s computer and Xbox, a camera and a pair of sunglasses. Within weeks, burglars returned but the glass door broken to access the home the first time was covered with boards. So they settled for her Georgia Power meter.

Baughns, 67, eventually had the glass replaced, and within a month of the first break-in it was smashed again. This time, the thieves made off with a box of jewelry.

Regardless of any police surge, Baughns said, a homeowner has to learn from her experience.

“I’m saving up money to get iron bars,” said Baughns, who lives off Glenwood Road in unincorporated DeKalb County. “What else can I do? Every time I turned around the alarm company was calling me to report another break-in.”

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