Atlanta’s homicides up for 3rd straight year

Mayor, police chief hope new initiatives will help curb gun violence
Atlanta police investigate a deadly shooting at an apartment complex off Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. 
(John Spink /

Credit: John Spink /

Credit: John Spink /

Atlanta police investigate a deadly shooting at an apartment complex off Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta. (John Spink /

A baby killed by a stray bullet. A cab driver slain after dropping off his passenger. A young woman shot to death over mayonnaise.

For the third straight year, homicides are up across Atlanta. Authorities had investigated 87 cases as of Friday afternoon, up from 79 this time last year. The uptick comes amid a city-wide increase in gun violence that started in the summer of 2020.

The trend is not unique to Atlanta, and city leaders have taken a number steps to combat the deadly surge.

“Gun violence is out of control and we’re going to put an end to it here in Atlanta,” Mayor Andre Dickens said during a news conference in January after the fatal shooting of a 6-month-old boy. Months later, Atlanta is on pace to surpass last year’s total. Authorities investigated 160 homicide cases in 2021, the most since 1996.

The police department is working to hire more officers and increase visibility outside bars and nightclubs where shootings are common, but officials note they can’t be everywhere. Nearly half of the city’s homicide cases have been linked to gangs, investigators say.

“We can’t be in every living room and we can’t be on every street corner, nor should we,” said interim Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, a department veteran who moved into the top spot in June after Chief Rodney Bryant retired. “When you’re angry and you have a gun, the outcome is going to be bad. And we’ve seen it be bad in this city time and time again.”

Victims’ ages range from infancy to 72 years

Kerri Gray’s baby was killed when someone in another car began shooting outside a food mart in northwest Atlanta on Jan. 24, authorities said. The round went through the trunk of Gray’s sedan, striking her son in the head as he sat in his rear-facing car seat. Little Grayson Matthew would have turned 1 on Sunday.

“I was alone, holding my son as he took his last breaths in my arms,” Gray said. “I knew he was gone.”

Grayson Matthew died at just 6 months old when he was caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting in northwest Atlanta. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

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Credit: Channel 2 Action News

The mayor left a meeting and rushed to the scene that day after hearing the news.

“That was one of the hardest moments I’ve ever had in life and it’s still the hardest moment I’ve had as mayor,” Dickens said in an interview this week. “I was there when blood was still on the ground, bullet casings were still on the ground.”

Dickens and Bryant attended Grayson’s memorial.

“I have a daughter and young Grayson deserved to have the same things I’m experiencing with my daughter and my daughter is experiencing in life. Go through school, enjoy friends, grow up to go to prom,” Dickens said. “Grayson only got six months because somebody was shooting out a window at somebody else.”

013122 Atlanta: A memorial for 6-month-old Grayson Fleming-Gray is seen outside the Food Mart where he was shot and killed last week in a drive-by shooting on Monday, Jan. 30, 2022, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton /”`

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Police have made two arrests in the case.

Grayson is the youngest victim killed this year. (A 2-month-old’s death last year was recently ruled a homicide following toxicology testing). The oldest, 72-year-old Frederick Emereje, was killed early Feb. 15 at an apartment complex near Centennial Olympic Park. Police believe Emereje was dropping off a passenger who stabbed and shot him before stealing his taxi.

The father of three came to the U.S. from Nigeria decades ago. His son, Siri Emereje, said his dad was the embodiment of the American dream.

Frederick Emereje was shot and killed Feb. 15 after dropping of a passenger at an apartment complex in downtown Atlanta.

Credit: Darrell E. Watkins Funeral Home

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Credit: Darrell E. Watkins Funeral Home

“He wanted to see his sons get married,” said Siri Emerje. “He would have become a grandfather at some point.”

Investigators found the abandoned taxi three days after the shooting, not far from the scene of the crime. After examining items left inside, police charged Elibra Allen, 48, with felony murder and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

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Homicides up nationwide since 2020

Atlanta is not alone in dealing with a spike in homicides in recent years. Memphis saw a record 332 homicides in 2020, then topped it in 2021 with 345, The Daily Memphian reported. In Baltimore, 179 people have been killed through the first six months of 2022, putting the city on pace for its deadliest year ever, the Baltimore Banner reported. Philadelphia set a record last year with 562 homicides; the city’s 290 homicides so far this year marks a 2% decrease from 2021.

Crime analyst Jeff Asher, who tracks homicide statistics nationally, pointed to several possible factors driving the violence: the increased availability of firearms, a drop in policing in some areas and erosion of trust in law enforcement by the public since 2020.

“These are all hypotheses. I don’t think anybody knows the recipe for exactly what’s causing the violence,” Asher said. “The increase we saw in 2020 was so sharp and so sudden. And it was national. It wasn’t just in big cities or small cities. It was really everywhere.”

Schierbaum said escalating disputes account for nearly 40% of Atlanta’s slayings this year. Many stem from trivial spats, issues so minor he called them “perplexing to the human mind.”

He noted a June 26 incident in which two Subway employees were shot over mayonnaise. Brittany Macon, 26, died and her coworker remains hospitalized.

Melvin Williams, 36, of Atlanta, was taken into custody hours after the shooting and charged with murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Court records show he was out of jail on bond after being arrested in March 2021 on domestic violence charges. According to Williams’ bond order, he was not allowed to possess any weapons.

Atlanta Police Department Interim Police Chief  Darin Schierbaum talks about crime in the city at his office on Wednesday, July 6, 2022 (Natrice Miller/

Credit: Natrice Miller /

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Credit: Natrice Miller /

Schierbaum spoke to reporters at the scene of the Subway shooting, sounding exasperated.

“We can take down drug operations that breed violent crime, we can dismantle gang organizations that breed violent crime, we can stop robbery crews that breed violent crime,” he said. “We cannot stop someone who is mad because there is too much mayonnaise on their sandwich.”

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Chandra Kemp moved to feel safer and was shot while making dinner

Frederick Emereje came here to pursue the American dream

Stemming the violence

Although shootings historically surge in the summer months, the frequency of slayings has slowed in recent weeks. Dickens, who has made public safety his top priority, has launched several initiatives aimed at curbing crime since taking office in January. The police department launched its Repeat Offender Tracking Unit and Fulton County officials revived the Court Watch program where everyday people are taught how to follow certain cases through the judicial system.

The mayor started a Midnight Basketball program aimed at keeping young people out of trouble, while the police department beefed up the city’s network of security cameras and has asked residents and business owners to register their surveillance devices. Dickens also announced plans to install or replace 10,000 streetlights across Atlanta. A new mini-police precinct recently opened in Buckhead, and the city is looking to hire 250 new officers by the end of the year.

“There is a whole of government approach that we’ve been taking to respond to violent crime and to address the root causes,” Dickens said, “in both the short term and long term.”

220629-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens talks with journalists following a ribbon-cutting for a new police mini-precinct in Buckhead Village on Wednesday, June 29, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

On Thursday, Dickens named Peter Aman as the department’s first chief administrative officer, a position the mayor created to “ensure that APD is staffed, resourced and organized to meet our public safety goals.”

Aman served as Atlanta’s chief operating officer under former Mayor Kasim Reed before running for mayor in 2017. Dickens also promoted Deputy Chief Carven Tyus, who joined the department in 1993 as a patrol officer and has risen in the ranks since then, to the role of interim assistant chief.

“These appointments will help us implement the mayor’s vision of a best-in-class department that will allow us to recruit, retain and support the preeminent police force in the nation,” Schierbaum said of the moves.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, whose office has convened a special grand jury to be used for its investigation of former President Donald Trump and his efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, is still working through a massive backlog of criminal cases that worsened when courts shut down amid the pandemic. But she is confident in her team of prosecutors, investigators, administrative assistants and victim advocates.

“We’re now in a really good place where we have a team together,” she said recently, adding her focus has been on prosecuting violent crime. “I have a team that focuses on murder. I have a team that focuses on gangs and all of those things are intact.”

Willis said her office indicted 200 murder cases last year and is on track through the first half of 2022.

Thaddeus Johnson, an assistant professor of criminology at Georgia State University, said a confluence of social, political and economic factors is driving the nationwide spike in gun violence.

“Research shows a correlation between the number of shootings and the number of guns being produced,” said Johnson, a former Memphis police captain. “There’s nothing highly complex about that.”

Fatal shootings may have surged during the pandemic, he said, but non-fatal shootings had been on the rise for several years leading up to 2020.

“It was like gasoline was poured on that fire when the pandemic hit,” he said. “As people undergo more stressors and feel less optimistic about the future — when they feel they have nowhere to go — anger builds up. Resentment, hostility, desperation builds up.”

Deadly violence leaves not just grieving families but wary residents and business owners.

Kawanna Harris and her children moved to Riverdale after their neighbor was killed by a stray bullet in her northwest Atlanta apartment. Chandra Kemp died Jan. 10.

“This community that we were in is already high in crime,” Harris said. “But to not feel safe in your own home is a whole different thing.”

Leslie Roberts, whose family has run a salon and beauty school in southwest Atlanta since the 1970s, looked on in disbelief as detectives investigated the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old outside a fire station across the street the street from her shop.

“It’s gotten out of control,” said Roberts, who thinks easy access to guns and a lack of mental health care are driving the violence. “They’re not looking for other ways to rectify a situation. They’re just resorting to a knee-jerk reaction and shooting people over simple things.”

‘Put the guns down’

Time and again, department leaders have pleaded with people to handle disputes peacefully.

“Put the guns down,” deputy police chief Charles Hampton Jr. said last summer after Atlanta logged its 100th homicide of 2021. “Let’s just be decent human beings.”

A year later, city leaders are especially concerned at how young some victims and suspects are.

Belinda Oliver’s 18-year-old son, Markeith Oliver, was shot to death in 2017 during an argument while selling water bottles outside a southwest Atlanta gas station. On Jan. 15, her 15-year-old son, Kelvice Roberson Jr., was shot outside the Dunbar Neighborhood Center on Windsor Street. The South Atlanta High School student died at Grady Memorial Hospital before his mother could arrive. Oliver hadn’t finished paying the bill for Markeith’s grave marker before having to plan a second funeral.

“Help bury my 15-year-old please,” was the title of the GoFundMe she launched seeking assistance. She was working part time and battling COVID at the time.

A man was convicted of killing Markeith and two people have been charged in Kelvice’s death. The brothers are now buried side by side.

”A lot of people don’t care about each other,” their mother said. “They don’t love each other. I think they need to put the guns down because a lot of people keep getting killed.”

Kerri Gray, whose 6-month-old, Grayson, was shot to death the week after Kelvice died, wears her baby’s ashes in a necklace. His Winnie the Pooh toys are still in her bathroom from the last time she bathed him.

Kerri Gray's 6-month-old son died in January after being struck by a stray bullet in northwest Atlanta. 

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

“He was such a smart baby and I wonder what his IQ would have been,” she said through tears, noting that her son would be starting to walk and talk about now. “I think about his face and what it would look like. How can you not think about that?”

She had several miscarriages before getting pregnant with Grayson, who she described as a “rainbow baby.” Grief counseling has done little to help.

“You feel like there had to be something you could have done to help him or save him,” she said. “But nothing’s going to bring him back.”

— Staff writers Alexis Stevens and Bill Rankin contributed to this article.