Too few officers, too many crimes

AJC Investigation: ATL cops trying to keep up with the calls

At any time, only a dozen or so uniformed officers may patrol Zone 1, despite its history as one of the most crime-ridden parts of the city. It was here that many victims of Atlanta’s most infamous crime wave — the Missing and Murdered Children cases of 1979 to 1981 — lived and died. The notoriety persists. When he joined the police department six years ago, Officer Dedric Alexander says, “Zone 1 was off the leash — off the leash.”

The challenges of maintaining law, or at least order, play out daily in Zone 1. Too few officers are expected to respond to too many crimes and other incidents, and often there simply are no officers available to handle serious calls.

In a 13-month period studied by the city auditor, Zone 1 was in “blackout” — with all officers on duty simultaneously assigned to calls — an average of 163.5 minutes a day. Zone 1 was alone among the city’s six police precincts in experiencing blackouts every single day.

Of necessity, city police dispatchers routinely hold emergency calls longer than the department’s standards require an officer to reach the scene, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found. The dispatch delays contribute to overall response times that fall far short of the department’s goals.

A recent evening in Zone 1 illustrated the problem. The precinct’s officers responded to no major crimes, investigated no deep mysteries. Their shift instead was filled with small dramas: neighborhood disputes and traffic accidents, break-ins and family fights. Their biggest test, it seemed, was simply keeping up with the calls.

‘Everybody knows’

The officers who work the evening shift begin gathering at the Zone 1 station, a drab gray building on Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, about 2 p.m. At roll call, Sgt. Timothy Culberson reminds the officers how short-handed the precinct has been lately and how much more dangerous that makes their jobs. He implores them to use sick days only when necessary.

“If you’re sick, you’re sick,” he says. “But everybody knows when you’re sick and when you’re not.”

Alexander has barely begun patrol when his first call comes over the police radio: illegal trash dumping on Chestnut Street.

Alexander drives east along Hollowell, a Zone 1 thoroughfare that until the early 2000s was known as Bankhead Highway.

Signs of the area’s poverty abound: dirty, rundown rooming houses; vacant houses with plywood-covered windows; retail stretches dominated by check-cashing stores and title pawn lenders; stray, skinny dogs nosing around in loose trash. At the same time, there is evidence of what economists might call green shoots: a newly constructed health clinic, a handful of chain fast-food restaurants and new and renovated houses on many side streets (although a large number are in foreclosure, boarded up to keep out vagrants).

On Chestnut Street, Alexander finds the owner of a vacant house, who had come by to work on renovations only to discover a load of trash on the front lawn and sidewalk: a sofa, a dining table, boxes of household goods, a watermelon. A neighbor, he says, told him the former occupant of a house across the street, now in foreclosure, dumped the trash. But the neighbor doesn’t want to talk to police.

“If they’re not going to get involved in a murder,” the man tells Alexander, “they’re not going to get involved in this.”

The best Alexander can do is to write a report, which might help the property owner avoid code-enforcement fines before he cleans up the mess.

Seconds after resuming patrol, Alexander gets another call: an unruly teenager at a house on Magnolia Street. He arrives five minutes later.

The view from Magnolia Street includes the Bank of America tower, the Westin Hotel, the Georgia Dome and, closer by, a row of shotgun houses. On the side steps of one house sits a 16-year-old boy, the object of this call.

The boy tells Alexander he’s not to blame for the problems between him and his mother. His mother, he says, is a “crackhead” who has been to rehab and now “thinks she’s so perfect,” even though she smokes marijuana in her bedroom. The boy admits he opened a beer from the refrigerator — to get the attention of his mother’s boyfriend, he says — but promises he’s doing his best. “I go to school every day. I get good grades.”

The boy’s mother walks up. Her hair has been pressed into flat strands, then set into a permanent wave. She wields a lit cigarette as she talks. Her son, she tells Alexander, was “disrespectful.” He won’t take out the trash. He goes off for entire weekends with a cousin. He goes to church, but still misbehaves. She wants him removed from her house, even though, she says, “He’s my baby. I love him.”

The woman says she suffers from insomnia, and needs help to sleep. “I admit,” she says. “I smoke weed.”

Alexander escorts the mother into the house and closes the door. He tells her to stop smoking marijuana, to set a better example for her children, that if she doesn’t, she could be the one in trouble. The woman nods. Alexander then talks to the son. When you’re 18, he says, you can go out on your own. Until then, Alexander tells him, take out the trash, do what your mother says, show her some respect. “You’re a smart kid,” he tells the boy as he leaves. “All right?”

This call — more social work than crime fighting — takes nearly 15 minutes.

Picking up the slack

Like the other precincts, Zone 1 is divided into “beats” where individual officers concentrate their patrols. But this night, zone commanders have to improvise: Some officers will have to cover more than one beat, and “umbrella” cars — available for dispatch throughout the zone — will pick up the slack.

Officer Matthew Crump has umbrella duty for the western half of the zone, once one of the toughest parts of Atlanta. Several public housing projects — Perry Homes, Bankhead Courts, Bowen Homes — incubated crime for decades before being closed in recent years.

Crump has been on the police force about two years. He’s young, just out of Hawaii Pacific University, the son of an Atlanta doctor. He wants to join the FBI and someday maybe start his own company. For now, he works the evening shift in Zone 1.

Driving west on Hollowell, Crump hears a radio dispatch for another officer in the area. It’s a domestic violence call at an intersection along James Jackson Parkway. Crump accelerates his police cruiser and heads toward the scene in case the officer needs backup.

By the time he arrives, Crump already knows from reading messages on his onboard laptop computer and from the police radio that a man struck a woman as she drove their minivan and then ran away. Many suspects warrant generic descriptions, but this one sounds easy to spot: 6 feet, 2 inches, 350 pounds, wearing all red — T-shirt, shorts and hat.

“He’s a big boy,” Crump says.

Crump checks on his colleague, who is taking a report from a woman with a red welt on her face, then drives slowly along surrounding streets, shining a spotlight down alleys and driveways, checking the parking lot of a half-abandoned apartment complex. After almost 15 minutes, he gives up and resumes patrol.

Crump remains busy throughout the evening. He answers a silent alarm call at an elementary school on Hollywood Road; workers from a cleaning crew triggered the alarm while watching the World Series on a classroom television. He examines what appears to be a stolen sport utility vehicle outside an apartment complex; a security officer tells him that, despite indications the ignition has been tampered with, the vehicle belongs to a visitor to the complex.

At 10 p.m., an hour before his shift is to end, Crump is dispatched to an apartment off James Jackson Parkway. A man there says he came home to find the back window broken out; his book bag and his girlfriend’s laptop are missing.

Crump retrieves materials from the cruiser to dust in the apartment for fingerprints. He doesn’t expect to find much.

“This isn’t ‘CSI,’’’ he says.

Then he talks to an across-the-hall neighbor who says she saw thieves leaving the scene that afternoon. The woman, who lives alone, says at least one of them also saw her.

Crump asks, “Do you feel comfortable being in a police report?”

She doesn’t answer right away.

“I’m not pressuring you.”

She shakes her head, and Crump gives her his business card and leaves. Other calls are waiting.

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How we got the story

To understand the challenges facing police in responding to emergency calls, a reporter spent an evening shift on Oct. 29 with officers in the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 1. The reporter observed the scenes described in the article.

This article amplifies a report in Sunday’s Journal-Constitution on frequent delays in police dispatching. The newspaper’s analysis of a database of emergency calls to the city’s 911 center found that in 18 percent of incidents, because dispatchers can’t find officers to send, they delay calls longer than what is supposed to be the total response time, from the 911 call to an officer’s arrival.

The newspaper worked with WSB-TV to obtain data from the city, and its investigation coincided with reports on WSB about long hold times on the city’s 911 lines.

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