In 2021, Atlanta’s killings surged for a second straight year



David Mack left his grandmother’s home to play with friends last February and never came back. His family found the 12-year-old shot to death the following day. In March, Ronald Barner was gunned down during a morning walk in his southwest Atlanta neighborhood. He was 58.

Three days later, Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; and Yong Ae Yue, 63; were killed when a gunman opened fire at the spas where they worked. Jamesha Trammell, 30; Elexcia Banks, 40; and Katherine Janness, 40, all were found slain in different public parks.

After a historically deadly 2020, Atlanta leaders hoped homicides would decrease last year. The opposite happened.

Authorities investigated 158 killings in 2021, one more than 2020 and the most since 1996.

“It doesn’t get any easier,” said Glenda Mack, David Mack’s grandmother. “I want someone held accountable. I just need to know who killed him.”

Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant said most homicides stem from disputes between people who know each other and noted his officers can’t be everywhere at once. Blaming the mayor or police department for the spike in homicides, he said, won’t solve the issue.

“It takes multiple entities to reduce gun violence,” he said.

Jonathon Middlebrooks, 54, shot to death Jan. 4, 2021, was Atlanta’s first homicide victim last year. His son, Joshua Middlebrooks, was charged with murder. That afternoon, Ernesto Anderson, a 32-year-old father of four, was shot in the head while driving on I-20 West in downtown Atlanta. No one has been charged in that case.

The final homicides of the year occurred on New Year’s Eve. Jaquon Anderson, 21, was found shot to death at a home on Bethel Drive and the body of Jeffery Moore, 31, was discovered in the back of an abandoned car on Bolton Road. No arrests have been made in either case.

Crime was the central issue in last year’s mayoral race and is fueling a movement among some members of Atlanta’s wealthiest community to split off and form a new city out of Buckhead.

“Crime is out of control,” said Toni Moceri, a Buckhead resident who’s lived in Atlanta for 26 years. She was held at gunpoint for more than an hour during a violent home invasion and robbery in 2015. Since then, she said, crime only seems to have gotten worse. “You can’t even go out in Buckhead and not worry about where you’re walking.”

Atlanta isn’t unique in grappling with a spike in killings for a second consecutive year. At least a dozen major U.S. cities shattered homicide records in 2021, some of which were set the previous year when the pandemic shuttered schools and businesses, leaving millions of Americans unemployed.

While Atlanta’s killings increased only slightly from 2020, they were up about 60% compared to 2019, according to police department data. At least 840 people were struck by gunfire in 2021, records show.

Among them was Georgia State University professor Volkan Topalli, a longtime criminologist who researches urban violence and regularly interviews active offenders across the city.

Topalli stopped by the Lindbergh Home Depot along Piedmont Road on May 15 to pick up potting soil for his wife. An argument at the rooftop pool of a nearby apartment complex led to gunfire, and a stray bullet struck the professor’s arm in the store’s parking lot, fracturing his bone.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

He called the shooting a “one-in-a-billion bad luck event” that may lead to early arthritis but that hasn’t changed his lifestyle or left him paranoid. It did make for an interesting anecdote to share at last fall’s meeting of U.S. criminologists in Chicago, though.

“Crime is not a static thing,” said Topalli, who has researched the topic for nearly a quarter-century. “Yes, there is a spike. But it’s been much higher before.”

He noted other major cities saw far more gun violence last year and that Atlanta’s number of homicides, while up the past two years, is still down significantly compared to the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Topalli said the pandemic, widespread demonstrations and a proliferation of guns created “the perfect storm” for a spike in violence in large cities across the U.S.

‘From Bankhead to Buckhead’

Mayor Andre Dickens, a former councilman who won the Nov. 30 runoff with 64% of the vote, said he plans to hire 250 police officers by the end of the year and will install more streetlights and surveillance cameras.

“I want to make sure that our city is safe from Bankhead to Buckhead,” Dickens told the crowd at his inaugural speech. “I want to see our city be a place where little kids can play outside without being afraid of getting shot by a random bullet.”

The first 100 days of his administration, Dickens said, would be “laser-focused on reducing crime.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

“We will beat back the scourge of crime,” Dickens said, touting plans to hire more officers and train everyone on the force — rookies and veterans alike — in conflict resolution, de-escalation tactics and community policing. The new mayor has also said he will partner with state and federal agencies to crack down on gun trafficking.

Dickens said he plans to keep Chief Rodney Bryant on at least for the first 100 days of his term.

Bryant, appointed in June 2020 following the departure of former police Chief Erika Shields, was named permanent chief last year. He grew up in Atlanta and said he’s seen crime rates fluctuate during his time with the department and doesn’t think the recent increase in gun violence is the new norm.

“There are times that we see spikes and we do anything that we can do to get those spikes down. But we always generally see the crime go down,” said Bryant, who came out of retirement to take the helm. “I’ll stay as long as I’m needed and I’m able to contribute something to this department.”

Stopping gun violence

In 2020, city leaders launched a program aimed at offering counseling and resources to some of Atlanta’s shooting victims. The program seeks to curb subsequent violence by addressing street-level conflicts before they escalate to more gunfire.

The “Cure Violence” program currently focuses on the Adair Park, Capitol Gateway, Mechanicsville, Peoplestown, Pittsburgh and Summerhill communities. It is set to expand, employing residents to play the role of “violence interrupter” in their neighborhoods.

“I think that’s really an important move because it says that public safety is not fully the purview of law enforcement, that you have to have a community-based solution,” said Topalli, the GSU criminologist.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

“If you think of violence as operating kind of like a disease, it spreads from person to person, from neighborhood to neighborhood,” Topalli said. “The mechanism for the spread of violence is retaliation.”

Atlanta police have made arrests in 81 of 2021′s homicides, while 66 cases remain open and arrest warrants have been issued in another seven killings, department officials said. In the other four cases, the suspects are dead.

August proved to be the deadliest month of the year, with detectives investigating more than 20 killings. Within hours of recording the 100th homicide that month, Remondo Swinney, 43; Darrius Gray, 29; and Terry Coleman, 32, were fatally shot in a southwest Atlanta parking lot not far from police headquarters. The investigation into the case continues.

Robyn Jackson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Neighborhood Association, said he and his neighbors feel relatively safe in their community, though there were several shootings at nearby Woodruff Park last year.

He does have concerns about the recent spike in violence across the city, however.

“I don’t know what can be done except to simply increase the number of police on the streets,” he said. “I just think police on their feet on the sidewalks is really going to be the only way to stop that.”

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Union leader: Police force struggling with leadership, morale

As the Atlanta Police Department looks to retain officers and recruit new ones, leadership and morale within the force remain the two biggest challenges, said Lt. Kevin Knapp, who serves as president of the police union.

More than 200 officers retired or resigned in 2020 and nearly 160 more left last year. Department leaders say they hired 122 recruits in 2021, but Knapp estimates the department is understaffed by at least 500 officers.

“That number is probably higher,” said Knapp, a 20-year-veteran who commands the burglary unit. “Morale-wise, when you’re going to work and you know you have to do the work of not only yourself, but an officer that may be missing next to you, you’re being asked to do more with less,”

Many are leaving APD for jobs in the suburbs, lured by better working environments, higher pay and less crime, he said.

“You can’t unsee some of the things you see throughout your day,” Knapp said. “Getting yelled at on a certain call, going to car accidents with children injured, going to a shooting with children injured. It takes a toll.”

The police union endorsed former Mayor Kasim Reed in last year’s election, but did not endorse Dickens or former Council President Felicia Moore in the runoff.

Knapp criticized former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ decision to quickly fire two officers following the June 2020 killing of Rayshard Brooks outside an Atlanta Wendy’s, and said morale within the department is still suffering as a result of that decision.

Garrett Rolfe, the officer facing felony murder and aggravated assault charges in Brooks’ shooting, was reinstated by the city’s Civil Service Board last spring after the group determined he was not afforded his right to due process. Officer Devin Brosnan, the first officer on the scene that evening, is charged with aggravated assault and other offenses.

Union leaders met with Dickens before the runoff and look forward to working with him, Knapp said.

“He is really going to have to do something out of the gate to show the officers here that he is on their side — (that) as long as they’re doing the right thing, he is going to do whatever he can to keep them here and attract more qualified officers,” he said.

During his inaugural address, Dickens pledged the new streetlights would have the city “lit up like a Christmas tree from the airport to Phipps Plaza” among other efforts.

“I will direct our police chief to remind our police officers that they are here to serve and protect,” Dickens said. “We know that this crime does not happen in a vacuum. We must attack the root causes of crime. There needs to be a balance between safety and justice.”

Homicides investigated by APD in 2021: 158

Homicides involving guns: 145 (91.8%)

Deadliest Month: August (23)

Homicides cleared: 85

Clearance rate: 53.8%

Number of arrests: 81 (51% of all homicides)

Percentage of closed cases cleared by arrest: 95%

Men killed: 131 (83%)

Women killed: 27 (17%)

Source: APD crime data