Along a short strip of Park Avenue, a street that sits among ritzy Buckhead condominiums and luxury hotels, Atlanta police made the latest car theft arrest. It was the suspect’s 14th arrest and adds to concerns about repeat offenders and a growing number of crimes in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
The arrest came on the heels of a confrontational town hall meeting about crime with hundreds of Buckhead residents pushing the Atlanta Mayor and the Atlanta Police Department to fix the problem. While police officials say overall crime in the area that includes Buckhead is down this year, angry residents say the criminals are becoming more brazen and it has made their once peaceful neighborhoods unlivable.
Buckhead resident Mina Land was pleased to hear suspects are being arrested but said she is still fearful. “You can catch them, but if (they are) let back out what is the purpose?” she said. At the town hall meeting, Land voiced concerns about increased crime.
Atlanta Police Department officials acknowledge crime has been on the rise in Buckhead for the past 18 months, but say the patrol area known as “Zone 2,” where Buckhead sits, has seen a 7 percent drop in all crimes in January and February compared to the same months last year. On Friday, police released data showing that in the past 28 days alone, all types of crime have dropped 23 percent.
In the past three weeks, Atlanta police arrested seven people — all repeat offenders — accused of stealing cars or motorcycles from Zone 2.
Police say many of Buckhead’s crimes are car thefts and burglaries — crimes of opportunity that don’t carry as heavy a penalty as violent crimes. Under Georgia law, felony auto theft offenders can get up to five years in prison.
Atlanta police Zone 2 Commander Barry Shaw said thefts from Buckhead vehicles are also “lucrative.” He reported more than $52,000 in cash and 45 guns have been stolen from cars in Buckhead this year, and more than 50 cars were stolen with keys left in the car, Shaw said.
“You’re seeing more of what we call ‘crews,’ who ride through and begin to break into cars.”
The top three crimes reported in Buckhead since January 2018 are theft of items left inside cars; all other thefts; and stolen cars.
The news of more arrests is reassuring to Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods’ executive director Mary Norwood, who addressed the city’s crime efforts earlier this year in a letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
On Friday, a week after the mayor’s town hall led to finger-pointing among political and public safety officials, Norwood acknowledged police efforts: “I think that the exposure and coordinated efforts by police have made a tremendous difference.”
While Norwood praised the work of Atlanta police, she said she still plans a community meeting next Thursday at Peachtree Presbyterian Church to continue addressing many issues raised at the town hall.
Shaw has kept a personal log of crime statistics, including the items stolen, since the start of the year in an effort to raise awareness at community meetings and potentially reduce crime.
“We’ve had some neighborhoods that have been diligent about pushing the word out to communities about not leaving stuff in the car,” he said. “Even though some get hit, crimes have slowed.”
In addition to new approaches to policing the Buckhead zone, Atlanta police officials are asking for a change in the judicial system.
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“We’re pushing for changes in the way cases are handled in Fulton County,” Shaw said. Such changes include making sure magistrate court judges have the suspect’s criminal history in hand during bond hearings, and a clear understanding of why that person was arrested.
Shaw’s comments echo Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields’s stern remarks at the Feb. 28 town hall: “I need the DA (Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard) to show us who is getting prosecuted and who is getting thrown out.” At a press conference to address Shields’ remarks, Howard claimed Fulton County magistrate court judges were to blame for releasing violent offenders over the objections of his prosecutors.
Shaw’s numbers aren’t the only ones telling the story of Buckhead crime.
According to the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, Atlanta police officers failed to show up 2,340 times last year to testify at a grand jury, causing many cases to be thrown out.
Shields acknowledged that was a problem: “If cops don’t show up, I’ll own it.”
District Attorney Howard suggested bond decisions by Fulton magistrate court judges be reviewed by Superior Court judges.
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said Howard and magistrate judges have not met to discuss his proposed recommendations. Chief Magistrate Court Judge Cassandra Kirk did not return emails requesting comment.
But Shaw’s concerns are bigger than that: “We don’t want to wind up having an officer killed by someone that should have never been out.”
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