OPINION: Atlanta homicides dropped in 2023. Why?

Authorities investigate a shooting in December. John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Credit: John Spink

Credit: John Spink

Authorities investigate a shooting in December. John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com

Homicides in Atlanta dropped at a healthy rate last year, so Mayor Andre Dickens and Police Chief Darin Schierbaum chief went to church to share the good news.

With the stained glass windows of Salem Bible Church in the background, the two officials noted that the number of homicide cases authorities investigated dropped from 171 in 2022 to 135 in 2023, a 21% decline. There was a 46% reduction in youth homicides in 2023, which Dickens named “Year of the Youth” in announcing a number of programs aimed at steering young people toward positive activities. Through September, Atlanta had the third-largest drop in homicides among major U.S. cities.

Of course, the dip followed years of increases. It’s like the show “The Biggest Loser,” where the heftiest contestants always seem to lose the most weight at first.

It’s reassuring that violent crimes, the ones that unsettle society the most, dropped last year. But students of statistics know it’s hard to go too crazy about yearly data bumps because there’s always next year.

And the stats tell only part of a wider and largely mysterious story.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens speaks to members of the media during a press conference next to Atlanta Police Department Chief Darin Schierbaum, right, to discuss reduced crime rate in Atlanta at Salem Bible Church, Thursday, January 4, 2024, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

I hate to be a grump here, but compared to 2019, the year before COVID, homicides in 2023 were up by 36%, aggravated assaults by 33% and car thefts by a whopping 73%. (The car thefts increased largely because ambitious ne’er-do-wells figured out through social media how to boost Kias and Hyundais)

Now, to be fair, I must point out that since 2019 robberies and burglaries are both down 41% and reported rapes dropped an astounding 74%, from 233 in 2019 to 61 in 2023.

The reasons for these hikes or drops? Well, nobody really knows.

Long ago, while working in a newspaper in a small town, the city had an annual drop in crime and I asked the chief why.

“Good police work,” he said, without missing a beat.

Police chiefs and pols are now generally too wise to be so brazenly self-promoting. Dickens and Schierbaum invited leaders of nonprofits that work with at-risk youth come to church to share the spotlight. The words “partnership” and “teamwork” popped up often.

I spoke with William Sabol, a Georgia State University professor who once headed the Bureau of Justice Statistics. For decades there have been debates on what has caused a dramatic drop in crime from the 1980s until just a few years ago when COVID screwed things up.

There were those who argued that “hard” measures like policing strategies or computerized data highlighting crime “hot spots” or tougher sentencing had curbed crime. Others pointed to education, or job programs or health initiatives — “soft” approaches — for the declines.

“Can we say that a dollar spent on investments in people is more impactful in lowering crime rates than a dollar spent on policing?” Sabol asked. “We don’t know.”

Others have argued that gentrification, the phase-out of leaded gasoline and even legalized abortion have led to large decreases during the 1990s and 2000s (One theory holds that “unwanted” children would be more prone to crime.)

Sabol once did some figuring and found that the overall crime rate per 100,000 residents in Atlanta dropped by more than half from 1997 to 2009. And crime has dropped substantially since then.

Believe it or not. And it appears most people don’t. Crime ranked as the top issue facing metro Atlanta residents, according to a survey released in October by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Volkan Topalli is a criminal justice professor at Georgia State who has studied gangs and gun violence and has the scars to talk knowingly about the latter, having been wounded in the arm by a stray bullet outside a Buckhead Home Depot in 2021.

Topalli said pols and cops should not “over celebrate or under celebrate” drops or spikes in crime “because the numbers don’t last.” That is, the year-to-year numbers. But the drops long-term have been substantial.

The impact on that by police, he said, is certainly part of the equation, “but not as great as they think.”

Georgia State University Professor Dr. Volkan Topalli shows a scar on his left arm during a portrait that resulted from a gunshot wound while shopping at a Home Depot earlier this year, Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2021, in Atlanta. (BRANDEN CAMP FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp

For instance, overall crime in Atlanta is down 42% since 2009, the oldest year with stats listed online. Robberies have dropped an amazing 78% in that period (2,690 to 598) and burglaries are down an eye-popping 81% (9,102 to 1,678).

Good police work, right?

Or maybe burglarizing houses is too much trouble and too risky for this generation’s thieves.

“Amazon has changed the game,” Topalli said. “Porch piracy is easier than burglary. And most people don’t report it to the police.”

As to robberies, Atlanta police have targeted that crime with a unit but there’s maybe a simpler reason for the drop.

“It’s not as lucrative to rob people, so many people don’t carry cash anymore,” Topalli said.

So what’s an aspiring criminal to do?

“Maybe it’s a case that crime is more difficult to do and people aren’t up for it any more,” he said.

It’s always reassuring to talk with an optimist.