Atlanta police cleared the scene of a crash and shooting investigation on I-20 between Langhorn Street and Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard on the morning of May 6, 2020, after a man flagged down the officers, telling them that bullets went through his vehicle and hit him in the back. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

OPINION: Why no outrage? Atlanta shootings surge, but it’s not the cops

The exchange was surreal, a sign that the wheels may be falling off public safety in Atlanta.

Fittingly, it happened Monday during the City Council’s Public Safety Committee hearing as council members and interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant were grappling with the unrest plaguing the city.

Councilman Antonio Brown, who represents the district just west of downtown, was getting ready to speak in the virtual meeting when he told the chief: “I was just notified there was a young man who was just shot and killed at 377 Westchester Boulevard. Can you get a unit out there? He’s been on the ground and there’s no police who have come. He’s dead already, he’s on the ground and the residents have put a sheet over him and the police still haven’t arrived.”

It sounds like Afghanistan: Can you please come and pick up the body?

But there’s more.

On June 13, as angry protesters milled around the south Atlanta Wendy’s the day after Rayshard Brooks was shot in the parking lot by a cop — and hours before the restaurant was burned down — there was a wild shootout in the Edgewood neighborhood in east Atlanta. Five people were wounded and two were killed. Residents reported hearing perhaps 40 gunshots.

Earlier this month, the owners of a bar in the popular Edgewood Avenue nightlife district posted a photo online of the business’s window smashed by a bullet. They said they felt unsafe and were closing “until the city gets its #@&! together.”

What caused this? Eight people were shot nearby in six days.

Friday in south Atlanta, police found the body of 80-year-old Clarence Knox inside his home. Residents reported at least 20 shots the night before, and cops think he was the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting.

And over the weekend there was this headline: “6 injured in 3 overnight drive-by shootings in Atlanta.” One of the victims is a 10-year-old boy.

Violence is off the chain in Atlanta.

During the first three weeks of this month — May 31 to June 20 — 75 people have been shot in Atlanta. Last year during that period, 35 people were shot in the city.

At this rate it’ll be 100 shot by July.

Eleven people have been killed during that three-week period. Last year? Five.

These are not police shootings. They’re civilians shooting civilians. They don’t carry the outrage and notoriety that a cop shooting someone will. But the victims are just as dead.

» OPINION: 2 cops, 80 years of policing, and a 411 on what must be done

The carnage coincides with the protests of George Floyd’s killing in Minnesota. On May 29, demonstrations started in downtown Atlanta and things got crazy. Squad cars burned, stores were looted, and protesters and police clashed.

Sure, the overwhelming number of protesters are law-abiding and want positive change. But there are those up for mayhem. And as cops attend to them, the city’s criminals are emboldened.

“Crime doesn’t take a holiday,” said Councilman Michael Bond. “Crime doesn’t care about activists or protests. Crime doesn’t care about black men getting shot down in the streets. The criminals know the police are diverted. They are taking advantage of the situation.”

Two people were killed and at least five more were injured on June 13, 2020, in a drive-by shooting in the Edgewood neighborhood of northeast Atlanta, police said. (Atlanta Police Department photo)
Photo: Atlanta Police Department

Bond was part of a council majority (8-7) that voted against withholding funding from the Atlanta Police Department budget as a way to force reforms.

“The irony about defunding to reform police is that residents in those areas are begging for more police,” he said. Many residents, especially those who are older, are frightened about crime and “don’t want the police to go away,” he said.

Then there’s this: Many cops have taken a more hands-off approach to policing following the arrests of six officers for using Tasers on two college students this month, and the arrests of two officers in the killing of Brooks. Cops are reticent to get out and deal with angry people in the streets.

» OPINION: Went to the torched Atlanta Wendy’s and got guns with that

A video shot after a shooting near the burned-out Wendy’s shows cops being forced back into their cars by a threatening crowd. In the third week of June, Atlanta cops made 50 traffic stops. In the corresponding period a year ago, they made 3,000. (Yes, those numbers are right.)

Scores of cops have called in sick, and the so-called “proactive” policing — which is investigating situations to try to stop crime before it occurs — is now largely nonexistent.

“Officers will respond to high-level calls and protecting each other,” said Jason Segura, a cop who heads the department’s union. He said the recent firings and quick arrests of officers without detailed investigations has police thinking the city does not have their backs.

» OPINION: Fulton DA hopes putting cops in jail will keep him in office

He took issue with Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who until now has had a good relationship with cops, having pushed through a long-awaited pay raise.

“She’s going to listen to the mob” in calling for arrests of and sanctions against police, Segura said. “This is politics and the citizens are suffering. Being proactive will probably get you indicted under the current state of affairs.”

In a statement, the mayor’s office said overall crime is down 17% in Atlanta. “But like some major cities, we have seen an increase among certain crimes as more people resumed activity outside their homes since the end of May. Now that bandwidth is less strained following weeks of demonstrations, APD resources are freed up to increase patrols on the streets and curb illicit activity,” the mayor’s office said.

I called Elbert Bartell, a Westside resident who used to head the local Neighborhood Planning Unit and who lives near where the body of an 18-year-old lay in the street. He was angered by the slow response.

“It’s just another example that police are more interested in themselves than the interests of the public,” he said. “We know they want to deliver a message to (the city administration). But in that, we lose. We lose with the brutality and then we lose when they pull back.”

Joseth Jett spray-painted over graffiti from the night before, then painted “RIP Rayshard” on June 14, 2020, at the south Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police on June 12 during a struggle in a Wendy’s parking lot. (Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Steve Schaefer for the AJC

He senses a bad vibe in the streets. “Everything is getting tense and the summer is just starting,” he said. “It is a free-fall. You ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s going to get buck-wild.”

Bartell said the city must “try to redefine the relationship between the public and police” and quickly hire a new chief, someone who “understands community policing and hard-nosed policing.”

But, he added, “The community has to step up. We have to get into violence management in the neighborhood. We can’t lump it all on police. We are letting it happen. Our nephews and nieces are shooting each other.”

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