OPINION | A scary place to be: Atlanta murder rate equals Chicago’s

Atlanta police officers investigate the scene where a man was shot dead about 3:30 a.m. outside a Goodwill donation center on Collier Road on Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, 2020. . (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Atlanta police officers investigate the scene where a man was shot dead about 3:30 a.m. outside a Goodwill donation center on Collier Road on Tuesday morning, Oct. 20, 2020. . (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The murder rate in Atlanta has spiked this year, giving us one more grim reminder why we want to put 2020 in our rearview mirrors.

Early Tuesday morning there were two more killings — a 73-year-old man shot outside a Goodwill store in Northwest Atlanta, and a couple of hours later, a 59-year-old woman on Atlanta’s Southside shot by a gunman who opened fire from a hill outside her apartment as she slept.

They were the 115th and 116th homicides this year, and we still have two months to go. Last year there were 99 homicides. For the entire year, that is.

The killings bring the city of Atlanta into a dark place: It now has virtually the same murder rate as Chicago.

Let me repeat, Atlanta has virtually the same murder rate as Chicago. You know, the city where they seemingly pile up bodies like cordwood, allowing other municipalities to say, “Well, at least we’re not Chicago.”

But now we are.

As of Wednesday, Chicago had 631 murders, according to the Chicago Tribune. Yes, they have more than five times as many killings as Atlanta. But the Windy City, with nearly 2.7 million residents, is more than five times bigger than Atlanta, which has 506,811 residents, according to the U.S. Census.

Therefore, Chicago has 23.4 murders per 100,000 people and Atlanta has 22.9. Round them off and you don’t have to squint to see the resemblance.

(If you’re looking for a silver lining, Atlanta averaged 200-plus murders a year in the late 1980s and early 1990s, aka the crack era.)

Wednesday’s Metro section in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution carried two photos of murder scenes taken by photojournalist John Spink, who is Johnny on the Spot for Mayhem. He starts his shift at 5 a.m. and is usually picking up the pieces of the pre-dawn shootings.

John Spink, who has shot photos for the AJC since the mid-1980s. Photo by Hyosub Shin
John Spink, who has shot photos for the AJC since the mid-1980s. Photo by Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The key to being a good photographer is being at the right place at the right time, Spink said. He must hurry to each scene because the Atlanta Police Department’s homicide unit is so good, he said, “at getting on the scene and working it.”

They’ve got a lot of practice.

There have been at least 80 homicides in Atlanta since the end of May, twice that for the same period as last year. And at least 387 people have been shot during that time period, a 63% increase.

In August, The Wall Street Journal analyzed crime stats from the 50 largest American cities and determined that homicides were up 24% so far this year, and shootings had also increased, even though other crimes had fallen. Atlanta’s overall crime, too, is down 20% because of fewer arrests for larceny crimes and burglaries.

Police officers, professors, politicians and others all have various explanations as to why. The anti-police-brutality marches started in late May, bringing about unrest and destabilized police forces. Moreover, amid COVID-19 and the recession, many people are tense, scared, angry and hurting financially.

It can be a very toxic stew.

“There’s a real wretched spirit of hate out there,” said Spink, who has worked for the AJC for 36 years and noticed the violence picking up in late spring. “I guess people had a lot of scores to settle.”

ajc.com

On Tuesday morning, Spink was photographing the Goodwill murder scene when word came that the 59-year-old woman was killed in her apartment in a hail of bullets. So the homicide crew finished up, and the cops and media all headed south to Cleveland Avenue. Police believe the victim’s boyfriend was the target in that killing.

The chemistry of every scene is different, Spink said. Sometimes it’s a nightclub parking lot with revelers still milling about. Other times it’s a forlorn scene with nobody there. Sometimes there’s a crowd of angry friends and relatives who have an inkling of who did it and retribution is in the air.

It’s usually dark and cops with flashlights are surveying the scene. Spink uses a fast shutter speed to prevent blurring.

“I try to get an edgy look,” he said. “People say, ‘It’s like a movie.’ Yeah, it’s a real movie. It’s the real deal.”

Tyrone Dennis leads a discussion with community members at Pro Cuts ATL, a barber shop off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. The Investigator with the Atlanta Police Department is trying to build better relations between cops and the community with informal gatherings called "Clippers & Cops," when there is no cause for confrontation.  (Photo by Phil Skinner)
Tyrone Dennis leads a discussion with community members at Pro Cuts ATL, a barber shop off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Atlanta. The Investigator with the Atlanta Police Department is trying to build better relations between cops and the community with informal gatherings called "Clippers & Cops," when there is no cause for confrontation. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Tyrone Dennis is the real deal too — an Atlanta cop for 16 years and a gang crimes guy for the past decade. But he was one of 63 Atlanta cops to leave the force in July and August.

“Being an officer is a roll of the dice,” Dennis said. “One simple mistake and it’s over,” he added, meaning a cop can be fired or even indicted. “It’s a small window between right and wrong and a mistake.”

He referred to former officer Garrett Rolfe getting indicted in June just days after he killed Rayshard Brooks, a man who was passed out in his car at a Wendy’s drive-thru and then fought two cops, stole and fired a Taser at them, and got shot as he ran away.

Dennis said COVID-19 has a lot to do with the increase in violence. “There’s a lack of opportunity, jobs went away, kids are not in school,” he said. “Idle minds are the devil’s workshop.”

He added that cops were on their heels after the protests started and Brooks was killed. Atlanta Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant told the AJC recently that he doesn’t think a lack of “proactive” policing helped the spike in violent crime. He noted that violent crime is up in many other large cities.

Protesters at Wendy’s on University Avenue in Atlanta on June 14. Protesters set fire to the Wendy’s the day after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Atlanta police. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Protesters at Wendy’s on University Avenue in Atlanta on June 14. Protesters set fire to the Wendy’s the day after Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Atlanta police. (STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

The Wendy’s was burned down the day after Brooks was shot, and then became like a scene from Mad Max. It was a rallying point for some earnest protesters. But it also drew a group of knuckleheads with guns who stopped traffic and shot three people over the course of a week, including 8-year-old Secoriea Turner. She was shot and killed there after her family’s car was stopped by the armed mob. Her family is suing the city for $16 million.

“They allowed the lawlessness to get out of control,” said former officer Dennis regarding the city having a hands-off policy toward the Wendy’s. “We had to stand down. You had a bunch of insurgents take over a city block.”

“It’s a different climate, a different world,” he said. “Some people don’t value their own lives. Why would they value others?”

Dennis, a Black man, gets it. He said people are tired of police brutality, and departments need to weed out bad cops. But he also believes the argument of defunding police is a no-win. “People want to tear it all down and start over,” he said. “We don’t have time to do that.”

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