In late June 2020, then Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant appeared before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee facing alarmed members who wanted answers about the state of unrest.
It was abundantly clear something had changed for worse on the streets of Atlanta.
COVID had shut down life three months earlier, but the killing of George Floyd in late May had brought protestors back to the streets. The angry public mood that put police officers on their heels emboldened others to behave violently.
Then Councilman Antonio Brown cut into the chief’s presentation to tell him residents had just called to say a young man had been shot to death on the near west side. “Can you get a unit out there?” he asked. “He’s been on the ground and there’s no police who have come. He’s dead already, he’s on the ground and the residents have put a sheet over him and the police still haven’t arrived.”
It appeared society’s wheels were falling off.
I delved into police stats to discover during the first three weeks of that month, 75 people had been shot in Atlanta, compared to 35 during that period the previous year. Homicides increased during that period from 5 to 11.
“Violence is off the chain in Atlanta,” I wrote.
It was the start of a murderous period lasting almost three years that saw murder totals not witnessed since the 1990s. It got so bad that in 2021 police were left pleading with people not to shoot each other when they got mad. Seriously.
This Monday, Deputy Chief Timothy Peek was before that same council committee with very different news. Violent crime so far this year is down about 25% compared to last year.
And murders are down by more than half!
During roughly the first quarter of last year there were 43 homicides. This year, there have been 19.
Is this the start of a new downturn in crime, one that had been occurring for a couple of decades prior to 2020?
I spoke with Volkan Topalli, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University who has interviewed and studied gang members and causes of crime. He noted that crime blew up in 2020 because COVID and civil unrest dented the policing model. “Policing is predictive,” he told me, “and all the predicting got jumbled up.”
There were a lot of kids not in school, people not at work, folks who were cooped up at home who were anxious and even angry. A lot of that spilled out onto the streets.
“There was a microscope on police behavior as they were trying to cope with new patterns,” Topalli said.
He said there is a ceiling and a floor to crime levels and society had seemingly reached the floor before 2020. “We’re squeezing as much out of police as we can do,” he said, adding that other methods to attack crime are needed.
I called some people active in their communities. Last year, I spoke with Coreen Dent, president of the Southside Concerned Citizens, who told me gangs were driving violence. This week, she sensed that people were feeling somewhat safer.
“In our community, people view the police as an asset,” she said. “At meetings, residents are always asking for more patrols and more presence. Residents are upset and frustrated over the shortage of officers and often complain about wait times when dialing 911.”
She likes the police strategy of using blue running lights on their cars to make them more visible.
“(But) I do think there is a lack of communication between cops and residents,” she said. “It would be nice if they stopped or slowed down when they saw someone outside and just said ‘Hello, how are you today?’ That alone would make a greater impression.”
Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum, who was appointed last year, noted that violent crime started ebbing mid last year. He said there are many factors outside of a department’s ability to stop crime: “We cannot be in every living room where someone gets angry and has access to a gun.”
But, he added, using “intelligence” and technology and flooding areas where statistics show there has been trouble have been useful in averting crimes.
In essence, some of the predictability to policing has returned.
“Guns, drugs and gangs,” has been the mantra. I remember hearing that same thing years ago.
He said hiring teams of civilian number-crunchers has allowed gang, narcotics and violence-reduction teams to “go after some very specific areas and very specific people.”
Those teams focus on people with long track records, target suspects on warrants and last year more than tripled the number of gang arrests. Those are charges that are able to hold suspected criminals longer in jail and get longer sentences if convicted.
Critics say such charges are often leveled willy-nilly. Court hearings and judges are left to sort that out.
But a lot of it is simply old timey policing, one street cop told me.
“A lot of people know stuff and like to squeal, so we get a lot of tips,” the officer told me. “Bottom line, cops on the ground are not letting people get away with stuff.”
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