OPINION: Atlanta violence through time. It’s scary now. Nothing like it was

November 2, 2021 Atlanta: Atlanta police are investigating after a woman was found shot to death early Tuesday morning, Nov. 2, 2021 at a northwest Atlanta gas station. The shooting occurred along Sandy Creek Drive, but police responded to a Citgo gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shortly before 2 a.m. regarding the wounded woman. She was dead when officers arrived. Her name was not released. A gray Jeep was part of the crime scene and investigators had its doors open. Authorities did not say if the woman drove the Jeep from Sandy Creek Drive to the gas station or if she was found inside it. Police said witnesses at the gas station were cooperative but did not say if they saw the shooting. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)
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November 2, 2021 Atlanta: Atlanta police are investigating after a woman was found shot to death early Tuesday morning, Nov. 2, 2021 at a northwest Atlanta gas station. The shooting occurred along Sandy Creek Drive, but police responded to a Citgo gas station on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive shortly before 2 a.m. regarding the wounded woman. She was dead when officers arrived. Her name was not released. A gray Jeep was part of the crime scene and investigators had its doors open. Authorities did not say if the woman drove the Jeep from Sandy Creek Drive to the gas station or if she was found inside it. Police said witnesses at the gas station were cooperative but did not say if they saw the shooting. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Violent crime was the driving issue in Atlanta’s mayoral race last year. This election year, it’s motivating Gov. Brian Kemp to get tough on gangs. And it’s the fuel propelling Buckhead’s secession movement.

“It’s a war zone out there,” is the stock phrase of Bill White, that campaign’s Anxiety Peddler in Chief.

Twitter, Facebook and Nextdoor ensure you never miss out on something scary. Shaky videos of bullets randomly flying as screaming people scramble are common. It’s almost like you’re there, even from the comfort of your living room.

Everybody knows that crime has gone crazy. It has — to an extent.

Over the past decade, the number of shooting incidents in the city of Atlanta — events where someone got shot — have more than doubled. During the years 2009-2013 there were about 300 a year. The last two years? More than 700 a year. Homicides, too, have also almost doubled. Cases averaged about 85 a year a decade ago. Atlanta authorities investigated 157 cases in 2020 and 158 last year.

That’s a troubling trend and carries a host of guesses and theories as to what is happening: COVID, a coarsening of society, too many knuckleheads with guns, packed jails, absent parents, disrespect for law, police being forced back on their heels, and so on.

This has occurred during a counter trend — during the past decade, crime in Atlanta dropped precipitously, as it had for the previous two decades. Burglaries are a quarter what they were around 2010. Auto thefts are down more than 40% and robberies by about 60%. During that time, total crimes in Atlanta dropped from more than 35,000 to about 22,000.

I called some people to deduce what may be going on: A veteran cop, the mother of a young man who was murdered and a young Atlanta councilman whose mother was murdered a generation ago, a time when crime was really off the chain. In fact, all three had views on crime forged during that era, the 1990s, and gave insight to what’s happening now.

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Atlanta Housing Authority officials in June, 2009, began demolishing the last of the city's large public housing developments. The destruction is part of a city plan to get rid of what officials say have become crime-infested public housing developments. Last year, Mario Evans, 23, wore a shirt for his friend who was killed in the Bowen Homes community.

Credit: AJC file

Atlanta Housing Authority officials in June, 2009, began demolishing the last of the city's large public housing developments. The destruction is part of a city plan to get rid of what officials say have become crime-infested public housing developments. Last year, Mario Evans, 23, wore a shirt for his friend who was killed in the Bowen Homes community.
caption arrowCaption
Atlanta Housing Authority officials in June, 2009, began demolishing the last of the city's large public housing developments. The destruction is part of a city plan to get rid of what officials say have become crime-infested public housing developments. Last year, Mario Evans, 23, wore a shirt for his friend who was killed in the Bowen Homes community.

Credit: AJC file

Credit: AJC file

Antonio Lewis, who recently defeated longtime Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, grew up on Cleveland Avenue on the south side and later witnessed cops barging into the house at 3 a.m. looking for a relative. He was just 3 in 1990 when his mom was killed. “There was a street war going on at the time and she was murdered because she dated a guy from Miami,” he said.

His mother was one of 237 homicides in Atlanta in 1990. It was during the crack epidemic and a study found that half of murder victims in Fulton County had cocaine in their blood. The previous year, 1989, saw 247 homicides in Atlanta. What’s truly horrifying about the time is Atlanta had 88,000 reported crimes in 1989, including 9,100 aggravated assaults (four times that of today); 11,500 auto thefts (nearly four times today’s); 6,800 robberies (more than seven times today’s) and 17,000 burglaries (eight times that of today.)

But that was a different city. The public housing projects are now gone and with it a lot of concentrated poverty and accompanying crime.

Lewis said many shootings today are impulse acts by young people unmoored from jobs, schools or other structure in their lives. But the jobs that once bolstered his community, like those at the long-shuttered Ford plant near the airport, are a hazy memory.

“A man with a job ain’t robbing anybody,” he said. “We have a generation that didn’t have a job and their kids don’t respect them.”

Those “kids” now experience a hopelessness that manifests itself in destructive ways. “We talk about crime, but we have to talk about the things that lead to crime,” Lewis said.

Keith Meadows, the police chief of the city of South Fulton, spent 30 years on Atlanta’s force, once heading its homicide unit. When he started in homicide in the early 1990s there were 31 killings that month. “We called it ‘Murderous May’ and this has a very similar feel to it,” he said.

Murder often comes from an immediate explosion of emotions and, Meadows said, “you can’t police sudden-anger incidents. There’s a certain amount of angst and with that angst, people are quick to draw. And now that everyone has guns, it’s like the fastest draw.”

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Atlanta police Lt. Keith Meadows, commander of the department's homicide unit, inspects the scene.

Credit: ELISSA EUBANKS / eeubanks@ajc.com

Atlanta police Lt. Keith Meadows, commander of the department's homicide unit, inspects the scene.
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Atlanta police Lt. Keith Meadows, commander of the department's homicide unit, inspects the scene.

Credit: ELISSA EUBANKS / eeubanks@ajc.com

Credit: ELISSA EUBANKS / eeubanks@ajc.com

But a significant part of the violent crime wave is caused by gangs, and cops can do something with that, he said.

“You have to acknowledge that gangs are playing a very big part of crime in Atlanta,” Meadows said. “For a long time, Atlanta took the position that gangs were overblown. They weren’t.”

He said geography and jurisdictional boundaries don’t matter because “criminals don’t care about that.”

How do you deal with gangs? Well, Meadows is no coddler via his nearly four decades with a badge. “We engage in targeted enforcement,” he told me. “Those repeat offenders? We try to keep our foot on them.”

Betty Maddox Battle founded G.R.I.E.V.E., an organization that looks out for families of violent crime. Her 25-year-old son was murdered in Atlanta in 1993 by a pistol wielding 16-year-old. We met a couple of years ago after three teens were killed in a shooting and she was on a Zoom court hearing with a family when I called this week.

She believes a deadening has occurred in society and meets with young people frequently to try to explain the danger that will almost certainly befall them if they continue an aimless path.

“We have young people traumatized seeing (violence) over and over; they go off the deep end and don’t care about hurting anyone else,” Battle told me. “We have to let the young people know there are consequences for their actions.”

But it goes deeper. “We’ve got to look at the root cause,” she said. “You have to love yourself. If you love yourself, you’re not going to kill someone.”

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