It’s a perennial issue in Atlanta. Suspects who are arrested and later released from jail often commit additional crimes while out on bond.
But the pattern of “revolving door” offenses has been exacerbated in recent months, a result of a global pandemic that brought the court system to a screeching halt and the backlog of cases that followed.
Now, Atlanta police find themselves arresting the same people over and over, frustrated department leaders said this week.
In some cases, APD’s fugitive squad spends weeks or months tracking down a suspect only to see them granted a relatively low bond and released within hours or days. Many of those offenders — some have been arrested a dozen times or more — continue their crime sprees unabated once they’re back on the street, officials said, calling the pattern “disheartening.”
To help address the problem, the department launched a Repeat Offender Unit at the beginning of the summer.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant told a small group of reporters Tuesday afternoon at Atlanta’s public safety headquarters. “We all know that most of the crimes we see in the city of Atlanta are being perpetrated by a small number of people repeatedly.”
In one instance, a man facing a murder charge was re-arrested in June on an aggravated assault charge after allegedly pistol-whipping the mother of his child. Officers arrested Torry Wyche following a traffic stop and foot chase through a neighborhood on the city’s Westside. Inside his bag, police said they found a stolen pistol and two extended drum magazines, and drugs were recovered from the car he had been riding in.
He was jailed on the new charges, but released on bond the following day, Capt. Pete Malecki said.
Records show the 30-year-old has been arrested and released nine times since 2011 on charges ranging from misdemeanor drug possession to felony murder.
But Wyche’s story isn’t unique, Bryant told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying some officers find themselves arresting the same suspects for “similar crimes or even more aggressive crimes.”
“It becomes very discouraging when you find yourself faced with a person that you’ve arrested time and time again,” Bryant said.
When Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis took office at the beginning of the year, she faced a backlog of about 12,000 unindicted cases. Now she faces a Sept. 28 deadline to indict pandemic-period cases, or those charged could be granted bond.
“When I took office on January 1, this office was in even worse shape than I feared,” Willis said in a statement to the AJC. “We found an office in disarray, with approximately 12,000 unindicted pending cases, including in excess of 7,000 from the COVID shutdown period and over 4,000 that were left over from before the pandemic...”
Credit: Fulton County Board of Commissioners
Credit: Fulton County Board of Commissioners
To meet the looming deadline, Willis has brought in additional employees and is running two grand juries for the first time in Fulton County’s history, she said. On Wednesday, she again appeared before the Fulton County Board of Commissioners, pleading for additional help to get through the backlog of cases and keep violent offenders behind bars.
In Fulton, there are nearly 600 homicide defendants who have been indicted but are still awaiting trial, Willis said, adding that her office has indicted nearly 140 murder suspects since March 1. More than 50 more homicide cases must be brought before a grand jury and indicted by the end of the month.
She said her office is working around the clock to meet the deadline, prioritizing cases involving “sexual predators” and other violent crimes.
“I’m drowning. I need help,” an emphatic Willis warned the commissioners. “Dangerous people are going to get out.”
Commissioners voted to approve Willis’ request for $780,000 to hire an additional 55 staff members through the end of the year and another $5 million to keep the 15 lawyers, 15 investigators and 25 support staff on through 2022.
Bryant said the new Repeat Offender Unit tracks certain suspects who find themselves in and out of jail and then sends a more comprehensive case file to the DA’s office for prosecution.
“It can help (prosecutors and judges) more readily identify repeat offenders and take them off the street,” Bryant said.
Since the start of the year, the department’s fugitive unit has arrested 638 people, according to Maj. William Ricker. Of those, 67 were wanted on homicide charges and 380 were wanted for aggravated assault. Ricker said the Wyche arrest piqued his interest as to why someone charged with murder could be out on bond.
So he looked through the department’s fugitive arrest files spanning just over 60 days and noticed two things about those charged with serious offenses in the city:
“Most of the individuals were getting out within a couple of days and the bond was generally low,” Ricker said. “On average, $28,000 was the general bond amount. Then, of course, you talk about being able to just pay 10%, that’s a significantly small amount for people to be back out on the streets.”
In June, police charged a suspect following a double shooting that left a man dead and a woman injured weeks earlier at a home in southwest Atlanta. James McClendon, 45, who police said had been in and out of jail nearly 40 times, was granted a $50,000 bond and released three weeks later.
Out of 129 people arrested by the fugitive unit between June and August, 34 were out on bond, Ricker said. The majority of those suspects were charged with aggravated assault, but two — Wyche and McClendon — were also charged with murder.
“The most significant people that the fugitive unit is capturing (are) back on the street within, for the most part, two days,” Ricker said.
Bryant said if certain people aren’t kept behind bars, they often get guns and commit additional crimes, contributing to Atlanta’s monthslong surge in violence.
“This is where we need the assistance of our courts, our DA and our criminal justice system to help us get these individuals off the street,” the chief said.
He praised Willis and the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, but said there’s still work to be done to ensure “we’re not going after the same people repeatedly.”