City leaders appeared with depressing regularity at crime scenes in 2022, often sounding exasperated.
“I hate being here talking about kids and gunfire,” Atlanta police Deputy Chief Charles Hampton Jr. said after a Midtown shooting right after Thanksgiving that killed a 12-year-old and 15-year-old; two 16-year-olds and a 15-year-old were later charged with murder. “We just ask parents to know where your kids are, know what they’re doing. Check rooms. There’s just too many guns in the hands of our youth.”
One of last year’s youngest victims died just weeks into 2022. Grayson Matthew Fleming-Gray, who was 6 months old, was in his car seat on Jan. 24, 2022, when his mother’s car was struck in a drive-by shooting.
“These children are bearing the burden and the pain of adults who are choosing to use guns to solve disputes,” Mayor Andre Dickens said after the shooting. “The children are bearing this burden with their lives, and I’m here to ask, and to demand, that it stop right now.”
By the end of 2022, there would be a total of 19 children and teens declared homicide victims.
“These young folks have been gunned down too soon and, unfortunately for their parents, they are going to have to bury a child,” said Dickens, who attended the funeral home visitation after Grayson was shot. He took office a year ago after a mayoral election that centered around fighting crime, and has maintained a visible presence after deadly incidents, both to comfort grieving families and to urge an end to the violence.
“Part of it is getting people to learn how to deescalate conflicts,” he said. “The vast majority of our homicides are interpersonal — people that are acquaintances, people that are familiar to one another, domestic violence, you have a business relationship or a neighbor. They are angry. They have access to a gun. And they use it.”
The solution isn’t going to be simple, city leaders have said.
“We’re challenged because we cannot be in every living room, and we can’t be at every slight or indiscretion, every perceived infidelity in a relationship, unpaid bills,” Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum said. “Where we can be is arresting individuals that are engaged in gang activity. Where we can be is shutting down drug operations in the city and arresting people that are illegally possessing guns and being in places that we know are generating violence.”
Pleas for help
Deerica Charles had done everything she knew to do.
She was aware that her son, Zyion, 12, was hanging out with older kids and breaking into cars. Charles tried to get the police involved, even begging officers to arrest him.
“I cried out for help,” Charles said through her tears. “I cried out for it. I promise y’all, I cried out for it.”
On Nov. 26, Zyion was shot and killed on the 17th Street bridge in Midtown. Days later Cameron Jackson, 15, died after being injured in the same shooting.
“As a community, if we don’t come together and get the conversation straight about the real issue that’s going on, we’re going to lose a generation,” Tiffany Smith, Cameron’s mother, said after his death.
Three weeks later, Malik Grover, 14, and Justin Powell, 16, were killed and three others injured when gunfire erupted at the Retreat at Greenbriar apartment complex in southwest Atlanta. Investigators say the violence stemmed from an argument on social media.
“It’s heartbreaking and frustrating,” Schierbaum said. “We have to ask ourselves, as a society, how do 12, 13, 14-year-olds have guns and they’re committing crimes with guns?”
Dickens said parents need to be aware of where their children are and who they are with.
“I’m calling on parents to continue to know where their children are at all times,” he said. “Knowing where your teens are, knowing who their affiliates are, who they hang with and what they are up to.”
Atlanta police believe the shooting on the 17th Street Bridge was likely gang-related and Cameron, whose family said he dreamed of boxing in the Olympics one day, was the target.
“There are gangs that are actively recruiting young people, particularly (kids who) are expelled from school or those that are detached from their families,” Dickens said.
Timmie Thomas Jr., 31, was the father of six children and four stepchildren and was pursuing a career in music. He was hoping to start performing publicly, his mother said.
He became Atlanta’s first homicide victim of the year when he was shot to death Jan. 3, 2022, at the Allen Hills Apartments on Middleton Road.
“My son didn’t deserve that,” Conley said. “You don’t have any friends in this world. You have to trust in the Lord.”
Conley believes her son’s death was gang-related, although she said he wasn’t in one. She said people watched and even used their cell phones to record her son’s death. Some spectators even laughed, she said.
“I can’t believe what the world has come to,” Conley said. A teenager was charged with murder, but his name was not released. Investigators have not said if the incident was gang-related.
Shymel Drinks, 23, was shot to death in a car parked near a southwest Atlanta interstate bridge on March 14. Authorities have said that shooting was gang-related.
Drinks’ killing is part of a trial against Atlanta rapper Young Thug and more than a dozen of his alleged YSL associates. Shannon Stillwell, Quamarvious Nichols, Miles Farley and Damekion Garlington have all been charged with murder.
City and county leaders have made fighting gang violence a priority and both Schierbaum and Dickens said they are focused on working with the Atlanta Public School system and other community organizations to get kids off the street. Midnight basketball and the Police Athletic League, along with a program to employ teens during the summer, are helping many stay out of trouble, Dickens said.
During the summer, Atlanta hired 3,000 teens for various jobs paying an average of $16 an hour, the mayor said. A similar program was implemented over the winter break.
“We had a reduction in youth violence, even a reduction in water boys” over the summer, Dickens said, referring to the youths who sell bottled water at busy intersections. “They were out doing other stuff, working or having entrepreneurship opportunities in my youth programs.”
While many incidents of deadly violence happened when feuding people who knew each other drew weapons, officials have said, several high-profile cases in 2022 involved people with no previous interactions.
Brittany Macon had worked at a downtown Subway restaurant for about three weeks but was already considered a model employee, according to the owner. On June 26, a customer enraged over the amount of mayonnaise on his sandwich shot her to death, investigators said. She was 26.
Melvin Williams Jr., 36, was charged with murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.
On Oct. 27, Dean Phillips was leaving Manuel’s Tavern in Poncey-Highland when he saw a man attempting to break into vehicles in the parking lot, according to witnesses.
The 54-year-old DeKalb County father of five was fatally shot in the chest. No arrest has been made.
“He’s a protector. He’s always been a protector,” his wife, Sandra Phillips, later said. “He just tried to help whoever he could, in whatever way.”
Christopher Eberhart, 57, arrived early to a construction job at a home on Peachtree Battle Road shortly after 7 a.m. on Oct. 17. He was waiting in his pickup truck when he was shot and killed. Travis Landrey, 18, was arrested in Alabama driving Eberhart’s stolen truck.
Eberhart’s brother, Ronald, described him as a family man who loved his kids, enjoyed travel and just loved life.
“I’m never going to forget him,” Ronald Eberhart said.
In December, Eleanor Bowles, a 77-year-old who had been preparing for a holiday visit with family, was stabbed to death in her Buckhead home. Antonio Marquavis Brown, 23, is charged with murder. Authorities believe she may have interrupted Brown as he tried to steal her 2021 Lexus SUV from her home on Paces West Terrace.
Once again, Dickens spoke out.
“Let me very clear to those who would want to do harm in our community, who would want to perpetrate these crimes,” he said at the time. “If you pull a gun or pull out a knife in our city to hurt, harm, or kill someone, you will be arrested and sent to jail. We will use all of the tools of the APD and our friends and our partners, every resource we have, to bring to justice criminals who act in this violent way.”
Although homicides were up, other violent crimes, including rape and other assaults, were down across the city, according to police data. Shoplifting reports increased, but other property crimes decreased.
City leaders credit having more officers on the streets and a new mini-precinct in Buckhead. In November, APD launched a take-home vehicle program for officers living in the city. Officials say having patrol cars parked outside officers’ homes will serve as a crime deterrent in neighborhoods across the city and boost officer morale.
Connect Atlanta, the city’s integrated camera system also plays a role in crime fighting, Schierbaum said. In 2021, the city set a goal of having 10,000 cameras integrated into the system.
The program allows businesses and residents with surveillance cameras to register them with the police department.
Those cameras have helped investigators make quick arrests in some cases. Within 24 hours of 6-month-old Grayson’s killing, a suspect was in custody.
Authorities also said Atlanta’s camera network was integral in identifying the suspect involved in the fatal shooting of off-duty Fulton County deputy James Thomas.
When three people were shot in Midtown Atlanta on August 22, police used the surveillance network to track the suspect. Raissa Kegne was arrested hours later at the airport and charged with the murders of Wesley Freeman and Michael Shinners. Kegne knew the victims and had filed lawsuits against them.
“Honestly, I don’t care what happens to her,” said Alicia Freeman, Wesley Freeman’s widow. “I just want her to feel in her heart that she hurt somebody and not just him. She hurt me.”
Metro Atlanta and Georgia homicides in 2021 and 2022
Atlanta police: 161, 170
Athens-Clarke County police: 4, 5
Bibb County Sheriff’s Office/Macon: 50, 63
Cherokee County S.O.: 10, 4
Clayton County police: 52, 58
Columbus police: 64, 36
Cobb County police: 25, 21
DeKalb County police: 137, 138
Dunwoody police: 3, 3
Forsyth County S.O.: 2, 3
Gwinnett County police: 48, 45
Hall County S.O.: 4, 8
Marietta police: 3, 4
Paulding County S.O.: 4, 7
Richmond County S.O./Augusta: 33, 37
Rome police: 2, 5
Sandy Springs police: 8, 7
Savannah police: 34, 32
Data from individual law enforcement agencies
Southeastern city homicides in 2021 and 2022
Birmingham police: 132, 144
Charlotte-Mecklenburg County: 98, 110
Jacksonville, Florida police: 112, 127
Memphis police: 347, 302
Nashville police: 102, 105
Orlando police: 33, 40
Data from individual law enforcement agencies and media reports