Residents of the Ormewood Park area in southeast Atlanta were feeling a bit naked - security-wise, that is.
To their west, Grant Park had a long-running security patrol operated by off-duty Atlanta police. To their east, residents of East Atlanta started up a similar detail.
"All the other neighborhoods had security patrols; we were in the middle without one," said Amanda Blocker, an Ormewood Park resident whose family experienced a stolen lawn mower, a car break-in and, finally, a Christmas night burglary. "We thought maybe that's why we're getting hit so much."
So in late 2008, some residents of her neighborhood and five small adjoining communities banded together. About 90 households kicked in $30 a month to start their own security force.
Welcome to the safety patrol arms race in Atlanta, where citizens are increasingly hiring their own armed guardians to protect their neighborhoods against criminals getting run out of other protected areas. With Atlanta's police force chronically undermanned and fear of crime growing, private patrols manned by off-duty cops, a long-standing tradition in many neighborhoods, are becoming more attractive.
It's hard to determine just how many Atlanta neighborhoods have active patrols. There might be 50 or more. Nearly half of Buckhead's 43 neighborhoods employ them. Each day in Atlanta, scores of police officers are cruising various communities in their off-duty hours. It's a pattern occurring in Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties, too, although seemingly not to the same extent.
Sworn officers working second jobs is nothing new. In fact, most APD officers do, from guarding businesses to directing traffic for churches. Extra jobs are cleared by the department, and the time spent is limited to 25 hours a week. Officers generally make $30 to $35 an hour, more than most officers make in their regular time.
Mayor Kasim Reed campaigned on providing a "muscular" approach to fighting crime by attacking street gangs and adding 750 officers to the force of about 1,600. But for the time being, rent-a-cop protection will remain popular.
Deputy Chief Ernest Finley, appointed by Reed last week to head field operations, encourages the practice because it enhances manpower on the streets and helps morale by allowing officers to make extra money.
"It builds good relationships with the community," Finley said. "Most of the officers have good personalities. To keep this extra job going, they have to communicate with residents."
'You deserve safety'
While police and residents agree these mini-forces appear to be a crime deterrent, the practice of communities hiring their own police creates a new set of problems. Neighborhood groups have to figure out how to get people to pay, how to collect the monthly dues from recalcitrant neighbors, and who should manage the details.
It also raises broader questions. What does it say about a city government when residents feel so unsafe they voluntarily tax themselves to provide basic services? And, is it fair for some areas of the city to have extra protection just because they can afford it, when less affluent areas are often those that most need it?
"It's probably not fair," concedes Paul Zucca, the recent president of Grant Park's neighborhood association. "Everyone deserves public safety; you pay taxes, you deserve safety."
Still, criminals have gotten more aggressive, so residents feel they must respond. Zucca believes the patrols prevent some crime. "The word gets out that a certain neighborhood has private security and [criminals] say, 'Whoops, let's go to the next neighborhood,' " he said.
It's difficult to measure the effect of the patrols. Blocker said crime in her area seemed to drop after the off-duty officers started patrolling. "But we got hit pretty good [with burglaries] in December," she said.
Blocker sees neighbors hiring their own officers as people taking "personal responsibility." About 10 percent of the nearly 2,000 homes in her six-neighborhood bloc have ponied up, mostly the younger, newer residents in the gentrifying areas. The officers have arrested prowlers, trespassers and some men in a car firing a weapon, she said.
It's like having small-town policing in the heart of the big city.
"The APD beat cop probably wouldn't have the time to look into" seemingly lower-level crimes, she said. "There's a comfort you can leave home and an officer will check your property. They aren't just responding to calls. They're getting their hands dirty with research and getting to know who the criminals in the area are and their patterns."
Police glad for help
Barry Miller, a retired APD sergeant who runs patrols for 14 neighborhoods in Buckhead, picks up newspapers in driveways, drags garbage cans from curbs and collects fliers hanging on mailboxes — all things that scream to thieves, "Nobody's home!"
Miller, a longtime motorcycle cop, started his first patrol in 1979 in the Brookwood Hills community. He was hired by a resident he'd ticketed for a traffic violation. "The guy told me his wife woke up and a guy was going through her drawers," he recalled.
Miller patrolled the Peachtree Battle neighborhood Wednesday morning as he spoke. A day earlier, he had locked up a suspicious man driving the Springlake neighborhood, on a tag violation. He is proudest of helping arrest the man known as the "Buckhead rapist." Miller was on off-duty patrol in 1992 when he encountered a bleeding woman. He radioed the attacker's description and Sylvester Mills Jr. was arrested minutes later. Mills remains in prison.
Police commanders are happy to have the extra eyes on the street. "When I ran the zone, I was glad to have the off-duty officers working; you take your help where you can," said Maj. James Sellers, who commanded Zone 2 in Buckhead before retiring last year. He is working up a similar detail for the Buckhead Alliance, a public safety group started by business leaders six years ago.
The times and routes of the neighborhood patrols constantly vary to match a community's needs, and the amount of money residents can raise. Officers patrolling — most do it in their personal vehicles, in uniform, while listening to a scanner — can respond to calls, often faster than on-duty officers.
And while community association leaders can only urge neighbors to pay for the officers, Miller said "you can't discriminate" on which residents get service. "If you get a call, you can't say. 'They're not a member.' "
The neighborhood patrol in Inman Park, one of the more successful programs, has half its residents paying up to $300 a year for the extra security, and it shows.
The historic, well-heeled area's security force, started in 2007, has its own marked car and is on patrol about 12 hours a day, more than in most communities. About 12 officers trade off shifts, with one or two on the street at a time.
"Our Holy Grail would be to have patrols 24 hours," said Bob Sandage, the Inman Park association's public safety head.
But getting residents to pay up is a sore subject in some neighborhoods.
Myron Polster, public safety chairman of the East Atlanta neighborhood association, said maybe 250 homes — 10 percent of the neighborhood — pay the $200 a year fee.
"It's hard to sell people," he said. "There's an undercurrent of, 'I'm already paying taxes.' "
Those who do pay get a yard sign signifying their involvement. And while all residents benefit from the patrols, the association tries to give paying members some added value, instructing officers to spend more time on blocks where memberships are heavier.
"They are told where to go, not where not to go," Polster said. "It's not perfect. But it's the only way to stop the freeloading."
Kim Garcia, president of the Capitol View neighborhood association in south Atlanta, said her group started a patrol two years ago with three other communities, including Sylvan Hills. But interest — and payments — waned as the economy soured.
That means the patrols aren't as frequent as she would like.
But she continues to come up with the roughly $20 a month for protection, even after losing her job at an architectural firm.
"Peace of mind is important," she said. "On January 2, there was a dead body [found] in the trunk of his car" in nearby Perkerson Park. "We have real crime here, not just people kicking in doors."
Need 'critical mass'
In 2008, an effort in the historic West End community took root, a move noticed by residents in the nearby Westview neighborhood.
But Westview's effort stalled for the lack of "critical mass," said Scott Smith, president of the community organization. It's an area that has seen signs of gentrification, but also its share of neglect.
"The initiatives are coming from the new people moving to the neighborhood," said Smith, who has lived there since 2001. "They don't want to put up with the crap that people who have lived here for years have."
Smith said the discussion about patrols spawned an effort to set up block captains to call police on "suspicious" characters. "That gets people talking about who should or should not be here," he said.
With crime in the forefront of Atlantans' minds the past year, Smith thinks the movement toward a neighborhood patrol might get some momentum.
"It may be time to look at it again," he said.
Among the dozens of Atlanta neighborhoods with private security patrols are:
-- Peachtree Hills
-- Druid Hills
-- Inman Park
-- Garden Hills
-- Collier Heights
-- Brookwood Hills
-- Ansley Park
-- Grant Park
-- Ormewood Park
-- East Atlanta
-- Audubon Forest
-- West End
-- Capitol View/Sylvan Hills