Atlanta’s mayor and police chief stood before a bank of television cameras July 30 to address the apparent resurgence of crime in what once was the most violent city in America. A few days earlier, a champion boxer had been shot dead in the street. A City Council member had been carjacked at gunpoint. A local television station had tagged Atlanta with an apocalyptic new epithet: “City Under Siege.”
Four dozen police officers watched as Mayor Shirley Franklin and Chief Richard Pennington unveiled a new public safety strategy: a show of force that would put more cops on the streets.
Then those officers got back to work.
Inside police headquarters.
The moment’s irony represented a triumph of the status quo over promises of change. More important, it embodied the dysfunction that plagues Atlanta’s police department — a dysfunction that has turned crime into the city’s most intractable civic dilemma, an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
The department’s leaders and top city officials stood by as budget cuts, high turnover, low morale and a de-emphasis on routine patrol left the police force battered and weakened in its fight against crime, the AJC found by reviewing public records and interviewing criminologists, police officers, city officials and residents.
Even the achievements Pennington and Franklin cited for the cameras lose their luster under closer examination:
● Atlanta’s rate of reported crime has dropped sharply over the past decade — but still ranks among the highest in the nation.
● The city has hired hundreds of police officers this decade — but still fields a force no larger than it had three years ago.
● The police department has assigned hundreds of officers to special units that fight street gangs, deter drunken drivers and suppress drug trafficking, among other tasks — but often can’t spare an officer to answer a citizen’s call.
Now, with concern over crime dominating the fall’s city elections, candidates at all levels offer what, at first glance, seems to be an obvious answer: a larger police department. The more officers, the thinking goes, the less crime.
But the AJC’s analysis of crime statistics and police staffing suggests the problem is far too complex for a facile answer. How many officers Atlanta has may be less important than how it uses them.
Despite recent cuts, Atlanta has more officers for every 1,000 residents than all but one of seven benchmark cities identified by a consultant to the mayor.
The only city in that group with more officers than Atlanta — St. Louis — also is the only one with a higher crime rate.
Regardless, a stream of statistics and promises from city officials has done little to allay the skepticism and anxiety of many residents. Crime may be down, they say, but it also seems more brutal, more threatening. They don’t recognize the city that Franklin described as the safest it has been in decades.
“People are scared,” said Kyle Keyser, founder of Atlantans Together Against Crime. The group formed in January, in a near-spontaneous reaction to a perceived crime wave that crested with the killing of a restaurant worker near Grant Park. “I felt,” said Keyser, now a long-shot candidate for mayor, “like the city was going to pieces.”
Pennington was supposed to restore a city broken by crime.
Renowned for innovative crime-fighting techniques, he was recruited from New Orleans in 2002, when Atlanta had the nation’s highest rate of violent crime. But the chief has kept a low profile, even during periods of turmoil such as the one that followed the death of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman shot to death by narcotics officers during a botched drug raid in 2006.
At the July news conference, called after news reports questioned his dedication to the job, Pennington mostly deferred to Franklin. She declared the chief had “reformed” the police force, but offered few specifics.
Many police officers complain that the chief’s lack of engagement and his unfulfilled promises to significantly raise their pay have depleted morale.
“It’s the worst I’ve seen in 17 years,” said Sgt. Scott Kreher, the head of Atlanta’s police union. “Day in and day out for the last eight years, we’ve been beaten up. There’s been a lot of damage done internally in our police department.”
Pennington, who plans to retire when Franklin leaves office at year’s end, declined to comment.
Other police commanders defend the department’s performance in a time of budget cuts, hiring freezes and trying to do more with less. Even when furloughs reduced manpower by 10 percent, reported crime still dropped, said Deputy Chief George Turner, who spoke to a reporter on Pennington’s behalf.
“Do we have the appropriate amount of resources we need? We’d love to have more police officers, and the citizens would like to have more police officers. Do we use the resources we have to the best of our abilities? I think we do a good job, and I think our crime numbers say that.”
How well a police department performs its most basic job — preventing crime — can be assessed three ways, said Robert Friedmann, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.
“One is the numbers,” he said. “Two is the numbers. And three is perception.”
Atlanta’s crime numbers show long-term reductions in all seven major offenses tracked by the FBI: murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and automobile theft.
Reported violent crime hit its lowest point in 2008, down about two-thirds from the record high in 1990. Property crime reports also have declined — by 60 percent between 1989 and 2006.
A closer analysis, however, suggests those numbers present an incomplete picture.
Residential burglaries are a key component of the property crime category. But while all property crime decreased, reports of residential break-ins grew by 65 percent from 2004 to 2008. This year alone, home burglaries in southeast Atlanta are up 52 percent.
Larcenies have steadily decreased, as well. But thefts from automobiles, a frequent grievance of in-town residents, rose 30 percent in five years.
Criminologists say a high crime rate is inevitable in Atlanta, where widespread poverty and an influx of commuters, conventioneers and tourists create an atmosphere conducive to illicit activity.
In 2008, Atlanta posted the 14th-highest crime rate among the 268 U.S. cities with 100,000 or more residents, FBI statistics show. The ranking puts Atlanta in the company of such cities as Baltimore, Birmingham, Detroit and Oakland.
In contrast, Atlanta’s violent crime rate last year more than doubled New York’s. Its property crime rate exceeded New Orleans’ by one-third.
Still, as officials point out, Atlanta isn’t as bad as it once was.
No other city reported a higher rate of violent crime in 2002. By 2008, the annual number of homicides had dropped by half.
The advances stem not only from aggressive policing, but from shifting demographics.
Since the 1990s, the Atlanta Housing Authority has demolished almost all of the city’s public housing projects. For decades, those impoverished properties served as “incubators for crime,” said Thomas D. Boston, an economics professor at Georgia Tech who has studied the effects of closing the projects.
Before the demolition began, Boston found, one in five reported violent crimes in Atlanta took place in public housing projects. The violent crime rate at two projects near downtown, Techwood Homes and Clark Howell Homes, stood at 37 times the national average.
When the housing authority moved the projects’ residents to other parts of the city and to the suburbs, Boston said, the criminals attracted to the projects also dispersed.
“The reduction of crime,” he said, “is one of the most significantly understated results of dismantling the public housing projects.”
City officials downplay such factors. In an article he wrote for the AJC’s editorial page last month, Pennington said his department succeeded in reducing crime “entirely due to the city’s commitment to give us the resources we need.”
Two thousand by 2000.
That became a mantra for Atlanta politicians in the 1990s, as they repeatedly promised a 2,000-officer police force by the turn of the century.
That goal remains elusive. The City Council has never allocated enough money for a police force larger than 1,836 officers, and since July 2008, city leaders have eliminated 135 open police jobs.
Atlanta now has 1,592 officers, roughly the same as in December 2006.
Even that number overstates the department’s strength. It includes about 130 officers who work only at the airport. It includes more than 250 assigned to “special operations” and “special enforcement” units, such as equestrian and helicopter teams. And it includes almost 200 who perform middle-management duties that seldom put them on the street.
Just 40 percent of Atlanta police officers are assigned to routine patrol, the city’s internal auditor reported in April.
As a result, the auditor concluded, the department experiences frequent “blackouts” — periods during which no officer is immediately available to handle emergency calls.
The police zones covering northwest, southwest and southeast Atlanta were in blackout almost three hours a day in 2007 and 2008. In the other three zones, blackouts averaged 40 to 80 minutes a day.
At such times, dispatchers hold calls until an officer gets free. In June, according to the police department’s latest report, dispatchers took 20 minutes on average to send officers on calls.
With special assignments depleting the patrol ranks, zone commanders sometimes leave some areas unattended and others covered by a single officer.
“In a perfect world, we’d love to have all of them,” Kreher, the police union head, said of the special units. “We just don’t have the bodies to do that.”
Turner, the deputy chief, said officers from special units respond to major crimes in progress, and Pennington told the auditor those officers “augment gaps in patrol.”
But the audit found that special units handled no more than one-half of 1 percent of all calls.
In his editorial page article, Pennington said the department had “added” more than 300 officers since he became chief. But he did not account for the hundreds who left during that time.
A recent study by the nonprofit Atlanta Police Foundation, which is closely tied to Pennington, found that annual turnover in law enforcement agencies averages 5 percent to 7 percent. Atlanta’s attrition rate: 9.2 percent.
Ending the furloughs this summer helped close gaps in police staffing, said Dave Wilkinson, the police foundation’s president and chief executive.
If the furloughs had continued, Wilkinson said, “it would have been a death blow to this police department.”
On Jan. 7, Atlanta police were midway through their third week of furloughs — each officer laid off, in essence, half a day every week. With smaller paychecks came greater workloads.
For the overnight shift Jan. 7, just one officer was assigned to patrol beat 4 in Zone 3, a gentrifying, yet still sketchy section of southeast Atlanta that offers a spectacular view of the state Capitol’s gilded dome, gleaming in the night sky.
Just after 3 a.m., John Henderson and a co-worker were closing up the Standard, a restaurant and bar on Memorial Drive near Grant Park. A brick shattered the plate-glass front door. Four men rushed in, demanded money and forced Henderson and his co-worker to a back room, face down on the floor. There, according to initial police accounts, one of the robbers stood over Henderson and shot him twice in the head and once in each leg. The next day’s headlines would depict an execution.
Hours after Henderson’s death, 200 people gathered at the Standard for a vigil. Many spoke of friends who had been robbed or assaulted. Others, such as Kyle Keyser, had been victims of violent crimes themselves. That day, the first of what would become 10,000 members joined Atlantans Together Against Crime after connecting through Facebook.
“It really was the tipping point,” Keyser said of Henderson’s killing.
The case featured many archetypal elements of the high-profile urban crime story: the neighborhood’s historic poverty contrasted against the Standard’s hipster scene; the free-roaming young killers, possibly gang members; the overmatched police force, struggling to keep pace with crime. To many, the case seemed to be a metaphor that captured Atlanta as a growing threat.
Except it wasn’t.
Much of what was reported about Henderson’s killing turned out to be false. He was not shot execution-style. Nor was he wounded four times. He was hit once in the leg during the robbery and once again in the head, maybe by accident, as the robbers fled. One of the bullets came from a handgun the robbers took from Henderson’s co-worker.
And the area around the Standard was hardly unprotected before the robbery.
From 2:55 to 3:05 a.m., police dispatch records show, the officer assigned to the neighborhood was checking on a gas station at Memorial Drive and Hill Street — 500 feet from the Standard. The officer resumed patrol moments before the robbers smashed the bar’s door.
Short of standing guard at the Standard, it appears the officer could have done little more to prevent the crime.
“There’s a limit to how much officers can impact,” said Friedmann, the Georgia State criminologist. “If someone wants to commit a crime, they’ll commit a crime.”
And if it’s the right kind of crime, one involving a victim or location presumed immune from violence, news coverage often implies a broad menace, Friedmann said.
“You have a story, people pay attention to it,” he said. “You don’t have a story, people don’t know about it, and it’s as if it didn’t happen.”
In this case, all that followed — protests over police furloughs, a property tax increase to put officers back to work full time, the “City Under Siege” media frenzy over later crimes — was based on inaccurate information provided by a police detective the day of Henderson’s killing.
Keyser now knows the story was exaggerated. But a more honest account, he said, might not have stirred so much outrage or exposed so many of the police department’s shortcomings.
“You almost can’t deny there’s some taking advantage of the hype,” Keyser said. “We live in a culture where that’s prevalent.”
Pennington has a chance to try to turn the hype to his advantage, to convince Atlantans they’re safer than they think. On Tuesday, the chief is scheduled to address an annual breakfast sponsored by the police foundation.
The event’s theme: “Crime is toast.”
Some Atlanta police zones have no officers available to respond to calls for up to three hours each day. Figures reflect calls from March 1, 2007, to March 31, 2008.
Average blackout minutes/day
Number of days with no blackout
Average number patrol units per day
Average calls for service per day
Source: City Auditor’s Office
A timeline on crime
A series of highly publicized crimes and other incidents involving Atlanta’s police department has punctuated 2009, propelling public safety into the top issue in this year’s city elections. Among them:
Jan. 7: John Henderson, 27, was shot to death during a robbery as he and a co-worker closed the Standard, a bar and restaurant near Grant Park.
Feb. 17: Jeanne Calle, 57, a cancer researcher, was beaten to death, allegedly by a man posing as a potential buyer of her Midtown condominium.
May 27: City Council President Lisa Borders, a candidate for mayor, hid in a bathroom from thieves who broke into her townhome near downtown – the third time she had been burglarized in a year.
July 25: Armed thieves stole a car driven by City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell.
July 25: Professional boxer Vernon Forrest, 38, was shot and killed after he was robbed at an Atlanta gasoline station.
Aug. 21: Kirkwood resident Kenneth Hagen was shot and wounded while mowing his lawn; his assailants reportedly asked for money.
Sept. 1: Dooran Yoo, 80, was shot to death in a robbery that netted $2 at her family’s southwest Atlanta laundry.
Sept. 3: Spelman College student Jasmine Lynn, 19, died after she was struck by an errant bullet as she walked through the Clark Atlanta University campus.
Sept. 10: Officers were accused of misconduct following a raid on the Atlanta Eagle, a gay bar in Midtown. Police said they were looking for illicit sex and drug activity, but the eight people arrested were charged only with permit violations.
How we got the story
This examination of the Atlanta Police Department’s performance in fighting crime is based on an analysis of FBI crime statistics and other data and on interviews with police officers, citizens, criminologists and others.
The AJC reviewed three reports by the city’s internal auditor and studies by police department consultants.
Finally, the AJC compared crime rates and police staffing among Atlanta and seven benchmark cities.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Atlanta has always been a city with vision — the kind of vision that concocts the world’s favorite soft drink, sees beyond race, invents cable news, produces the world’s largest airport and hosts the Olympics. But it takes more than vision; it takes a commitment to solve problems. On Nov. 3, Atlanta will choose a new mayor for the first time in eight years — a change of guard that comes at a critical juncture. A veteran team of AJC reporters is looking deeply into the key challenges ahead, issues that resonate far beyond Atlanta’s city limits. A team of outside experts also will offer its suggestions and solutions.
Nov. 1: Advice from experts, who will offer their solutions to city woes.
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