The outcry over a spike in crime in one of the wealthier parts of Atlanta reached a crescendo this week, ending in a lot of finger pointing among the area’s top political and law enforcement figures.
Standing before a raucous crowd at a Buckhead town hall meeting on Thursday evening, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields delivered a pointed message to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard: “I need the DA to show us who is getting prosecuted and who is getting thrown out.”
At a press conference on Friday afternoon, Howard tried to do just that. He said it wasn’t the fault of his office for not prosecuting the cases. He claimed magistrate judges are releasing violent offenders over the objections of his prosecutors.
But one case Howard cited as an example seemed to illustrate the shortcomings of the district attorney rather than the courts, according to records reviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Buckhead has been considered the wealthiest and most exclusive area of Atlanta for decades, featuring mansions and high-end shopping. It’s been ranked nationally among the nation’s most affluent communities.
But residents have been reporting car thefts, burglaries and armed robberies in the traditionally low-crime area.
The current outrage over crime has echoes of the last mayoral election that pitted then-Councilwoman Mary Norwood against current Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Norwood is now executive director of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods.
In January, Norwood wrote to Bottoms urging her to meet with Buckhead residents about the troubling crime trends. A spokesperson from Bottoms’ office on Friday said Thursday’s meeting wasn’t planned in response to Norwood, but was the first of several town halls she had previously planned to hold throughout the city.
Hundreds of residents attending the meeting listened as the police chief acknowledged the department needed to do more to address Buckhead’s crime. Shields said Buckhead has struggled with crime in the past 18 months. But Shields called out the District Attorney’s Office for its inability to quickly prosecute those arrested.
Howard responded by making public a memo he sent Friday to chief Fulton County Magistrate Court judges. In it, Howard called for a more “extensive change” in the county’s release procedures as it pertains to repeat offenders and placed the blame on magistrate court judges.
Howard also gave the media documents with what he said were examples of people who should have been kept behind bars. Among them was Shawn Antonio Winfield. Winfield, Howard said, was held in custody for just two days in February even though his case involved forcing a 17-year-old girl to commit acts of prostitution at gunpoint.
“Mr. Winfield probably represents the classic case of what the police and citizens are complaining about,” Howard said.
But Howard didn’t tell reporters that Winfield’s aggravated assault and pimping charge stemmed from a 2016 incident in College Park, a city in south Fulton County, according to a police report. Winfield’s court file does not contain an indictment from Howard’s office on those charges.
Howard’s apparent misstep on Friday may do little to allay the concerns of Buckhead residents who booed the Mayor at the town hall meeting for suggesting that the city’s jail be repurposed. “This is an opportunity for us to have job training, a mental health facility and a 24-hour daycare,” Bottoms said.
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INTERACTIVE MAP: ZONE 2 CRIME REPORTS
The map below details crimes reported on the Atlanta Police Department’s open data portal for Zone 2 for the past 18 months -- from Sept. 2017-Feb. 2019. To add or take away layers, click the box next to each set of months. To see individual locations, click the arrow next to “All items” in each layer. To make the map larger or smaller, click the + or - buttons at lower left on the map.
Atlanta police break the city up into six zones for police patrols. According to the latest crime statistics reported by the Atlanta Police Department to the FBI, the zone that includes Buckhead had crime numbers for January that exceeded the crime numbers reported for any other zone in the city.
Buckhead had 566 reported crimes of all types from car break-ins to violent crimes, while the next highest number was zone 5, in the central part of the city, with 430 crimes in the same month.
Buckhead resident Mina Land, 40, lives on West Paces Ferry Road and told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she has seen a noticeable increase in crime in the past few years. “There are more dangerous crimes because criminals know they can get away with it,” Land said. “It’s like they’re flocking here.”
Shields said many of the offenders in Buckhead have become more brazen and often live outside the area.
But Shields said there has been progress. Crime in the area has been down 5 percent in the past two months compared with much of 2018, when crime reached “in the double digits.” Shields said the part of the problem is the department’s restrictive police chase policy that prevents police from chasing criminals who flee in cars.
The department also reduced the size of the Buckhead policing zone with the hope that officers can respond to calls more quickly. The 141 officers assigned to Zone 2, where Buckhead sits, were initially covering 13 beats; they now cover 11. The other two areas were moved into other policing zones.
“It doesn’t mean we’re satisfied or done,” Shields said. “It means we’re working to arrest the correct individuals.”
For Mercy Wright, Shields’ plans sounded encouraging. Wright, president of the Tuxedo Park Civic Association and a longtime Buckhead resident, said crime in the area is all her community can talk about.
“It’s always on your mind,” she said. “It didn’t use to be that way two years ago.”
--Staff writer Bill Torpy contributed to this report.
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