Red Dog squad was a product of a very different era

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

In 1988, the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe and crack cocaine dealers controlled many Atlanta apartment complexes, including the city’s 37 public housing projects. Some public housing residents, terrorized by nightly gunfire, begged the National Guard to intervene.

In 1987, the year the Red Dog squad was formed, the city of Atlanta had 207 homicides. (By contrast, last year there were 93.) Most of that violence was tied to the exploding crack trade, much of it run by ruthless, highly organized criminal gangs with their origins in places like South Florida and Jamaica.

Those were the conditions that prompted Atlanta Public Safety Commissioner George Napper to create the Red Dog unit, named for the football tactic of blitzing one’s opponent with every weapon at one’s disposal. Red Dog quickly made headlines by sweeping into open-air drug markets like the cavalry, complete with helicopter support and breathless reporters in tow. Those all-out tactics filled the jails and courts with accused drug dealers. In Fulton County, for instance, indictments for drug offenses more than tripled between 1985 and 1989.

Today, the housing projects and the crack bazaars – like the Berlin Wall – are a fading memory. The most recent incident in which the Red Dog squad's aggressive tactics generated a spate of headlines -- the 2009 raid on the Atlanta Eagle bar -- cost the city more than $1 million.

Monday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Police Chief George Turner, said that changing times require a change in approach. Two words kept cropping up in their remarks: “sophisticated” and “smart.”