With homicide rate ahead of 2020 pace, Atlanta police turn to social media for help

‘Think before you shoot’ part of department’s message about solving disputes
Atlanta police investigate a February double shooting outside a Chevron station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The department has investigated 37 homicides so far this year.



Atlanta police investigate a February double shooting outside a Chevron station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The department has investigated 37 homicides so far this year.

With Atlanta’s homicide numbers on pace to surpass last year’s historic total, the police department has taken a unique approach in its effort to curb gun violence across the city: pleading with residents not to shoot anyone.

In a Facebook post this week, the department urged its followers to avoid violence, saying Atlanta’s crime isn’t just a police issue, but a “people issue.”

“Healthy conflict resolution requires maturity,” the department said Thursday afternoon. “Choosing guns to resolve conflict does not. Think before you shoot.”

A total of 157 people were killed across the city in 2020, the most in more than two decades. Since then, Atlanta police have investigated 37 more homicides as murders surged by about 60% through the first three months of 2021, records show.

The most recent killing was Wednesday afternoon when a 30-year-old man was gunned down at a southeast Atlanta park.

Department spokeswoman Chata Spikes said it feels like police are pleading with residents to make better decisions amid the recent spike in shootings.

“We have to address what’s going on in our city, and gun violence is one of the top concerns for people,” Spikes said. “We’re hoping that people will see the message and think twice before they resort to picking up a gun.”

Thursday’s Facebook post included a graphic that showed two people fighting, a handgun and a casket draped with flowers. The hard-to-miss message? Anger + Guns = Nothing Good.

“Guns in the hands of angry or irresponsible people put communities at risk,” the post said. “Impulsive, violent reactions to conflict irrevocably change lives for victims, families and perpetrators. You cannot put the bullet back in the chamber once it is discharged. Many have learned this the hard way.”

Gun violence continues to plague not only our city but the nation. People are using guns to respond to domestic and...

Posted by City of Atlanta Police Department on Thursday, April 8, 2021

It isn’t the first time the department has turned to social media to discourage people from shooting each other. Atlanta police made a similar plea last month following a violent weekend in which officers responded to seven shootings in the span of about 12 hours.

“If you have a dispute with a friend or acquaintance, agree to disagree and walk away,” the department said in early March. “We want you to make it back home to your family when this weekend is over.”

The surge in gun violence has become a central issue in this year’s mayoral race as many feel the city isn’t doing enough to combat homicides. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced several initiatives she hopes will help reduce crime, including plans to hire 250 new officers, build a new training facility and add more cameras and surveillance across the city. Atlanta is also expanding some of its youth outreach programs as more people get vaccinated and COVID-19 cases continue to drop.

“I understand that (people) are afraid,” Bottoms recently told Georgia Public Broadcasting when asked about Atlanta’s crime rate. “But what I know is that this is not the first time our country has faced a challenge like this. This is not the first time we’ve faced an uptick in crime. And we’ll get to the other side of it.”

During the wide-ranging interview, the mayor said police morale is improving after a tumultuous 2020 in which several officers were fired for using excessive force. More than 200 officers quit the department in 2020. Many left after Erika Shields stepped down as chief in June following the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks after a scuffle in a Wendy’s parking lot near downtown.

To help retain police, Bottoms told GPB she is considering offering stipends to police officers who buy homes or live in the city.

But the department says its officers can’t be everywhere at once, no matter how many men and women they have patrolling Atlanta’s streets. Curbing gun violence comes down to making better decisions, city officials have said.

Michael DeValve, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, said most police officers in the U.S. simply aren’t trained to resolve interpersonal conflicts or given the resources to address such issues.

“It is, in many ways, on us to not be killing each other,” DeValve said. “Police are never going to prevent crime. Police can dent crime, but they’re never going to prevent it.”

Interim Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant called the surge in homicides “very concerning,” but said the department is taking steps to reduce violent crime.

“I do think we have a strategy that we have to play out long-term,” he said last week at the grand opening of a second center for at-risk youth. “This isn’t just a police matter, a police issue. It takes a community to really have a significant impact, so we all have to work together to get us out of this.”

In addition to the recent homicides, officers typically respond to several non-fatal shootings across the city each day. The most recent crime data shows there have been at least 173 reported shootings in Atlanta since Jan. 1, up more than 50% from the 110 shootings police investigated through the first three months of 2020.

Authorities said it appears the majority of shootings stem from arguments and people’s “failure to resolve conflicts peacefully.”

“In the heat of the moment, people don’t think about the consequences,” Spikes said. “Walk away so you can live another day.”

The rash of deadly shootings doesn’t just affect victims’ families, Spikes said. Resorting to violence will likely land the shooter behind bars for the rest of their lives, she said, and that typically has a devastating impact on their families.

According to the department, homicide detectives have made arrests in 70% of the city’s murders since last year.

“APD has one of the best homicide clear-up rates in the country,” Spikes said. “We’re going to do what we have to do to find you.”