Torpy at Large: DeKalb grabs Atlanta’s unwanted murder crown

For the first time in history, DeKalb County has taken the lead in something it sure as heck doesn’t want. It has registered more homicides than the city of Atlanta.

In 2017, there were 98 killings compared to 79 in Atlanta, which indicates what we’ve all known for years — that DeKalb has become more urban. The county has come off a few bad years of political and school turmoil, and has been turning things around. And now this.

With rising homicide numbers, DeKalb struggles with the same thing other metro counties must — gangs, drugs and, sometimes, just some bad luck.

DeKalb Police Chief James Conroy noted that the difference between murder and aggravated assault is maybe a quarter-inch of a bullet missing an artery. He notes that crime overall in the county may be down to historic levels, which he will release later in the month when he crunches the numbers.

But in the crime that matters most — the taking of human life, which grabs headlines and frightens the populace — DeKalb wears the unwanted crown.

It’s a moment in time that doesn’t surprise residents such as Bishop Quincy Carswell, pastor of The Covenant Church in south DeKalb, near I-285 and Glenwood Road.

Carswell, who buried a woman a couple of years ago who was killed in a carjacking, was not surprised. He has been expressing his parishioners' fears to county officials. A conversation with him brings up words such as "crisis" and "epidemic."

“DeKalb County was a premiere county in the state, but it has sunk,” he said. “No one’s saying anything about it. It’s like it’s supposed to be this way. DeKalb is the Chicago of the South, the Baltimore of the South.”

Not quite. Last summer, CBS news ranked 62 urban centers by murder rate for the first half of 2017. It plotted DeKalb at 28th, with 5.6 homicides per 100,000 residents, a point that DeKalb District Attorney Sherry Boston brought to my attention in an interview.

Chicago’s rate (12.1 homicides per 100,000 residents) was twice that of DeKalb’s and was ranked eighth. Baltimore was second with 24.5 per 100,000. St. Louis was No. 1 at 29 killings per 100,000.

Incidentally, Atlanta was ranked 20th, ahead of DeKalb, with 7.8 homicides per 100,000. It’s all in the division. Atlanta has perhaps 470,000 residents. Unincorporated DeKalb, which county police patrol, has about 570,000 residents.

But murder rate is one thing and body count is another. It gets residents, including Bishop Carswell, concerned. He has headed outreach programs for DeKalb’s youth, but he still wants some tough, old-school policing.

“It has to start with hard-nosed police work, he said. “They have to issue a manifesto to these punks out there that we are coming after you.”

Chief Conroy hears such talk.

"I go to community meetings and they say, 'Crime is out of control!' " he said. Social media — and the old-fashioned media, too — help churn that sense of mayhem and that fear, he said.

That’s why he is putting together charts and figures showing that DeKalb’s rate may be the lowest in the 32 years for which he can find numbers. Violent crime was down 8 percent in 2017 from the previous year and property crime is down 5 percent.

Of the 98 killings in DeKalb in 2017, county police say about 10 were gang-related, 13 were domestic-violence-related, 25 were the result of “some kind of dispute” and one-third were of unknown motive.

Conroy’s office noted that eight of the homicides were ruled “justified.” That happens more, it seems, with a population that is armed and ready.

In Atlanta, Police Chief Erika Shields feels for her neighbor. “Crime is so cyclical,” she said. “Next year we can walk into a tornado.”

In fact, 2016 was such a storm for Atlanta, when the city saw a surge of 111 homicides, about 20 more than it had averaged for the previous decade. Then suddenly, it's down to 79. Violent crime was also down 13 percent in Atlanta last year.

Part of it, with murder, anyway, is luck — remember Chief Conroy’s quarter-inch observation. But it’s also the strategy and and grunt work, Shields said.

Shields, made chief a year ago, said the department figured out that some apartment complexes were generating violent crime. So the police “leaned heavily on those complexes and the owners.”

Special units now target gun arrests, which were up last year.

Asked if DeKalb overtaking Atlanta surprised her, DA Boston said it didn’t. “Our challenges in DeKalb are not that different than in Atlanta.”

Drugs, gangs, gunmen with twitchy fingers and just some stupid, but deadly stuff.

Boston, who just finished her first year in office, started something called the "Crime Strategy and Community Partnership Unit," based off something similar in Manhattan.

The new unit is data-driven and is connected with the police. She said the unit will look at crimes in certain areas and “people touching those crimes.”

“What are the connections (of those people)? We are finding there are a lot of connections,” Boston said.

It’s always about getting the bad guys off the streets, the worst ones. Sometimes they are there operating almost in plain sight. Maybe the computers will help find them.

Defense Attorney Gerald Griggs said he was shocked when a detective told him DeKalb had overtaken Atlanta in homicides.

I met Griggs, who hangs his shingle in Decatur, eight years ago during a gang murder trial in Atlanta.

I remember writing a story about gangs in DeKalb five years ago and DeKalb police resisted the notion of gangs being particularly bad there. The “G-word” is something you don’t want attached to your home.

Griggs thinks the upswing might have to do with shifting population patterns. “The changing dynamics in Atlanta, the gentrification there” may be pushing poor people out of the city to surrounding areas, he said. “Where there is poverty you have crime. You are seeing more concentrated gang crime.”

Turning around crime, including the violent variety, is a tricky business, he said. It takes more than just law enforcement. It takes education, parenting, social services and some luck.

Perhaps 2018 might be DeKalb’s lucky year.