Violent repeat offenders targeted by authorities

Only stints of incarceration seem to have interrupted Cecil Patrick’s crime sprees.

Over the past two decades, court records show, he’s been arrested 14 times for aggravated assault and repeated drug offenses.

When neighbors complained late last year of an unusual amount of activity around Patrick’s Cascade Heights home, officers executed a search warrant. While they did not find Patrick, they discovered stashes of marijuana and cocaine, as well as a rifle and handgun, according to court records.

After federal prosecutors looked at Patrick’s rap sheet, they decided he qualified to be charged under an aggressive initiative targeting violent repeat offenders. In April, a federal grand jury indicted the 42-year-old fugive, who, if caught and convicted, faces a lengthy prison sentence without the possibility of parole.

The violent repeat offender initiative, a unique collaboration between federal and local authorities, has led to numerous federal indictments over the past year. Because a relatively small number of individuals are responsible for an inordinate amount of crime, authorities are now focusing on the quality, not quantity, of these cases, U.S. Attorney Sally Yates said.

The focus is now on high-crime areas in Atlanta, but the idea is to use the initiative in cities across the metro area and northern Georgia, Yates said.

“Our goal is to have fewer prosecutions, but more meaningful prosecutions that will have a positive impact on community safety,” she said. “We know there’s a relative handful of people out there who are causing a disproportionate amount of trouble. We want to focus on the worst of the worst.”

Lt. J.D. Patterson, who heads the Atlanta Police APEX unit, which identifies violent crime patterns using analytical data, said this is the first time in his 18 years on the force there has been such a high level of cooperation between local and federal authorities to target and arrest the city’s most violent criminals.

“It’s time to work smarter versus harder,” Patterson said. “We operate as a scapel as opposed to a broad sword.”

Authorities have established subjective criteria to determine which suspects should face federal prosecutions. These include defendants with a violent past who reoffend shortly after being released from custody; those identified through community sources as being existing threats to public safety; and offenders who have a history of violence and about 15 arrests over the past decade.

Among those charged:

  • Travis Yarbrough was arrested this summer after being caught in an undercover operation run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Yarbrough, who has pleaded guilty and awaits sentencing, sold drugs and a handgun to an undercover agent. Since his arrest on federal charges, Yarbrough, who has several prior convictions, was indicted in Fulton County for a 2010 murder.
  • Paul Bernard Parker, previously convicted of child cruelty and drug offenses, was indicted on federal charges after authorities found marijuana and a rifle and a handgun inside his home. He has pleaded not guilty.
  • Zachary White pleaded guilty to illegal weapons charges and was sentenced in August to 10 years in prison. He received credit for having already served one year of a state sentence for armed robbery and firearms violations. White has six other prior Fulton County convictions for illegal weapons and drug offenses.

The APEX unit, short for Atlanta Proactive Enforcement Interdiction, identifies individuals with a propensity to commit violence,then looks at crime trends in areas where the suspects live, Patterson said. Some of its investigations are prompted by tips from community sources.

In September, for example, the APEX unit targeted 27 suspects and arrested 22 of them, Patterson said. One suspect, who was charged with drug possession, had previously been arrested 45 times, according to police records.

Violent crime in Atlanta has trended down the past few years, and crimes designated as major felonies have declined about 6 percent this year, according to APD’s internal tracking system.

The violent repeat offender initiative has focused on southeast Atlanta, which includes the Pittsburgh, Mechanicsville and Cleveland Avenue neighborhoods. So far, major crimes that area have dropped by 15 percent, Patterson said.

LaShawn Hoffman, head of the Pittsburgh Community Improvement Association, said when neighborhoods are able to work together with law enforcement, it helps build trust.

“It dispells the notion that law enforcement doesn’t care,” he said. “So when we’re able to partner with them and it helps get the very few individuals who wreak the most havoc taken off the street, everyone feels better. And it encourages more cooperation.”

In 2011, APEX replaced the Red Dog Unit, the hard-charging strike force that targeted open-air drug markets with repeated raids and arrests.

APEX puts a priority on building solid cases against the most dangerous individuals, Patterson said. He noted that the Red Dog Unit amassed 2,500 arrests in 2010, whereas APEX has made about 270 arrests so far this year, with about 70 percent of them involving felony charges.

“We know that the people we are spending our time on are the people we need to be interdicting,” Patterson said.

Yates, the first woman to serve as U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, applauded the work of APEX and other local and federal agencies who have joined in on the violent repeat offender initiative.

“We want to have a coordinated approach, and we know it’s more difficult to build these types of cases,” she said. “But we believe this will have a far greater impact on public safety than any kind of dragnet approach. We want to make this a safer community, rather than just racking up prosecution stats.”

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