- Arielle Kass The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Because of their owners — actress Queen Latifah and retired superior court judge Marvin Arrington Sr. — the theft of two vehicles from south Fulton County gas stations this month has grabbed headlines.
The two high-profile thefts are indicative of a larger trend.
Lower profile thefts continue to happen from streets, homes and parking lots. But recently more attention has been focused on the thefts from businesses.
People, often teens, are taking advantage of unlocked cars at gas stations and elsewhere to take everything from purses to the vehicles themselves.
With prodding from residents, local politicians are proposing restrictions on businesses that they hope will help solve the problem.
Through Christmas, more than 900 cars were stolen in unincorporated Fulton County this year, 12 percent more than were taken in the same period in 2015, according to Fulton County police. The number of thefts from motor vehicles is also up — 17 percent.
Both robberies and burglaries are down in the unincorporated area, but the rise in car thefts and thefts from vehicles has been noticed by residents— even before the high-profile victims.
A group of residents has formed the group High Crime at South Fulton Gas Stations as a way to pressure leaders and officers to change laws. Members also inform neighbors about where crimes are occurring and what steps business owners are taking.
Leaders in Fulton County and Atlanta are considering proposals that would help quell the increase in thefts.
“This didn’t just start in 2016,” said Daphne Jordan, who heads the High Crime task force. “It’s been going on for years. It’s escalated more rapidly over the past year. It’s gotten even worse.”
The thefts are often crimes of opportunity, said Cpl. Maureen Smith, a spokesperson for the Fulton County Police Department. The perpetrators are mostly juveniles.
“They take vehicles and joyride or commit other crimes,” she said. “It’s just an opportunity, a crime of opportunity.”
As a result, Jordan said, “the community is suffering.”
While high-profile thefts from gas stations and cars that are taken with children inside as people pump gas garner the most attention, police don’t know for sure that there are more crimes at gas stations — they’re still crunching the numbers. Still, proposals in both Fulton County and Atlanta seek to put more responsibility for preventing crimes on the service stations and convenience stores.
“Whatever we’re doing is not working,” Fulton Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. said. “It’s a real issue that needs to be addressed.”
Arrington Jr. proposed a measure that would require gas stations and convenience stores where crimes occurred to put in security improvements if they wanted to keep their alcohol licenses. The proposal came from Jordan’s group, and was presented to the board of commissioners before the commissioner’s father’s 2016 Infiniti Q60 was taken from a BP gas station on Cascade road the night of Dec. 23.
Fulton County Chairman John Eaves said Thursday he’ll ask commissioners next week to support steps including a grant program to help fund surveillance equipment at convenience stores, a pre-trial program for perpetrators similar to drug courts, and formation of a team of officers to increase police visibility at gas stations.
The goal is to deter crime and reassure residents, Eaves said.
“I just want the public to know we all are taking this thing seriously,” he said. “We’re ready to take action right after the new year begins.”
In Atlanta, Council Member Keisha Lance Bottoms, a candidate for mayor, proposed requiring convenience stores and gas stations “that have experienced numerous violent crimes on their property” to hire an officer in order to keep their business licenses.
Andy Patel, manager of a Citgo gas station on Campellton Road in unincorporated Fulton County, said there have been no incidents at his station in the month and a half since owners installed cameras at an expense of $20,000 and hired a security guard at $8,000 a month.
In previous months, he said, teenagers would take advantage of the fact that people often leave their cars unlocked while they pump gas, or go into gas stations to pay. They would take cell phones and laptops out of cars, or slide across the passenger seat and drive off.
That’s what happened to his father, Arrington Jr. said. He left his car running as he pumped gas, and the thieves took advantage of that as he returned the pump.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” Arrington Jr. said. “People should not leave their cars running and their doors unlocked. There’s also part of it where the store owners have responsibility.”
In the case of Queen Latifah’s vehicle, the 2015 Mercedes-Benz S63 was taken Dec. 20 while an associate, Keith Sheppard, was pumping gas at a Shell station on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. The actress, who is in town filming, was not in the car at the time.
Though they were initially reported as such in the news, neither incident is considered a car jacking. Georgia calls it hijacking a motor vehicle when someone takes a car by force or intimidation while in possession of a weapon. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation classifies those as robberies, and does not keep separate statistics on how many robberies are hijacked vehicles.
Angela Holland, president of the Georgia Association of Convenience Stores, said it seemed gas stations and convenience stores were being targeted by politicians without actual knowledge of whether more crime was happening there. In response to Lance Bottoms’ proposal, she said having an officer can signal an unsafe atmosphere, and cause customers to leave.
Instead, she suggested people be more responsible on their own.
“When you park your car anywhere, do you leave it unlocked?” Holland asked. “Why would you leave your keys in your car when you pump gas? Anywhere you go, you take the keys out and lock the door.”
The attention the recent thefts has garnered led Eaves to move up a strategy session he had planned to discuss the issue of south Fulton crime. Originally scheduled for Jan. 9, it will now be held Tuesday. Nazeera Dawood, Eaves’ deputy chief of staff, said the meeting was intended to bring together people who might have ideas that could help curb crime, not merely move it from one area to another.
“We don’t claim to have answers, but we’re reaching out to those who might have a piece of the answers,” she said. “We don’t want to punish people who are employing people.”
When Arrington Jr. brought his alcohol license proposal to the board of commissioners last week, no one else supported it. Since then, he said, at least one commissioner reached out to him to urge him to bring it up again.
Crime is clearly a problem, Eaves said, but it is a problem across metro Atlanta. He said Fulton County must come up with a comprehensive solution.
“Gas stations are becoming an easy target,” Eaves said. “I’m going to put my focus on a broader solution to the problem.”
STAY SAFE WHILE PUMPING GAS
To minimize the likelihood of having your car or other possessions stolen from a gas station, the Fulton County Police Department offers these tips:
Stop at gas stations with proper lighting and surveillance equipment.
Take your keys out of the car and lock the door while you pump gas.
Put any valuables in your car out of sight.
Don’t become distracted by cell phones. Stay alert.