OPINION: Awful truth about Atlanta police tactics to deter violence

A man was rushed to a hospital in critical condition during the very early hours of Feb. 11, 2021, after he was shot outside a gas station in southwest Atlanta. He was one of two men shot inside an SUV at a Chevron on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Peyton Road, according to Atlanta police. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
A man was rushed to a hospital in critical condition during the very early hours of Feb. 11, 2021, after he was shot outside a gas station in southwest Atlanta. He was one of two men shot inside an SUV at a Chevron on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Peyton Road, according to Atlanta police. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The Atlanta Police Department issued a curious statement in advance of this weekend’s activities: If you shoot at someone, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.

But that’s where we are these days. Police are asking people — almost begging them — to behave. It’s a sign of the frustration (or the desperation) of local law enforcement doing what it can to put a lid on violence, a lid that just won’t stay put.

And with large crowds expected to come to Atlanta and hang out for NBA All Star Game-related partying, the cops are left trying to come up with something.

“If you come here and choose to get involved in gun violence or other criminal activity, please plan to stay because you’ll be residing in the Fulton County Jail,” Deputy Chief Michael O’Connor said in a video tweeted out by the APD to any potential troublemakers across the nation.

The department’s statement Tuesday went on: “If you have a dispute with a friend or acquaintance, agree to disagree and walk away. Live to talk and laugh another day. Gun violence is not the answer. We want you to make it back home to your family when this weekend is over.”

Fulton County’s new district attorney, Fani Willis, took a few minutes from investigating Donald Trump to issue this warning on Facebook: “If you come to Atlanta for All-Star Weekend and commit an act of violence, please plan to stay. 901 Rice Street awaits you.” Rice Street is Fulton’s overcrowded jail, a place where there are no mints on pillows.

Now, you’re probably wondering whether anyone will see these warnings and think, “Darn, I was gonna come to Atlanta and bust a cap in someone. Now I’ll just stay in Pittsburgh.”

One would assume that people, even the most dim-witted criminals, know that gunplay is pretty illegal. But I suppose it can’t hurt to remind folks of its seriousness.

“They’re saying, ‘We don’t want you to come to Atlanta and act crazy,’” Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who heads the Public Safety Committee, told me.

The APD statement Tuesday came a day after the police issued a plea for Atlanta residents to knock it off already with the violence. Please!

The eastbound lanes of I-20 were closed for more than three hours the morning of Feb. 25, 2021, after a man was found shot inside his vehicle in downtown Atlanta. Police discovered the body of a 33-year-old driver slumped in a wrecked orange Land Rover. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)
Caption
The eastbound lanes of I-20 were closed for more than three hours the morning of Feb. 25, 2021, after a man was found shot inside his vehicle in downtown Atlanta. Police discovered the body of a 33-year-old driver slumped in a wrecked orange Land Rover. (JOHN SPINK / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Monday’s plea was in response to a bad stretch during which 12 people were shot last weekend over a 12-hour span, leaving one person dead. The shootings were born of the usual matters that escalate to bad outcomes — a couple of nightclub fights, a drug transaction gone wrong, a 20- to 30-shot assault on a home, and an argument over a car. More often than not, people know each other.

Police said they’re working hard to stop the violence, “but police cannot be arbitrators for every argument,” the APD statement stressed.

“Some of these incidents require individuals to make better choices,” the APD said Monday. “Picking up a gun to solve disagreements is not just a police issue. These incidents involve people making poor choices when resolving conflict and it’s practically impossible to police that in real time. We need individuals to make better choices.”

Again, it goes without saying, right? Although perhaps not, because police feel like they must say it. C’mon folks, common sense here!

Last year, Atlanta had 157 homicides, up from 99 in 2019. And it continues unabated. So far this year through Feb. 20 there have been 18 homicides compared to 10 during the same time last year. Aggravated assaults are up 47% this year, as are auto thefts. The number of people getting shot has increased 20% to 85 so far.

And that doesn’t include last week’s carnage or the case Monday evening in which a guy started firing at some teens apparently trying to steal his car. Two teens, aged 13 and 14, were shot. A witness said occupants in the car were shooting back.

It was Conflict Resolution, Atlanta Style.

Police, of course, are trying everything they can think of to put a cork in it. On Monday, they announced they have a new tactical team that so far this year has made 2,300 traffic stops in an area that includes downtown and Midtown. They made 23 gun arrests.

Sounds good, until you realize the number of gun seizures is down 35% this year, from 304 during this time last year to 197 this year, according to the APD. And traffic stops overall are down 23% to 19,319.

So, a strategy of asking people not to be stupid or crazy can’t hurt.

“The goal is to hope people hear us,” said police spokeswoman Chata Spikes. “This is a call to action to the citizens of Atlanta.”

Or, more precisely, a call to inaction.

Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore (left) announced on Jan. 28, 2021, that she will challenge Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) in the 2021 mayoral race. (AJC file photos)
Caption
Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore (left) announced on Jan. 28, 2021, that she will challenge Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (right) in the 2021 mayoral race. (AJC file photos)

Credit: AJC file photos

Credit: AJC file photos

City Council President Felicia Moore, who is running for mayor, told me, “Officers are scrambling and scratching their heads. It’s not their fault people are shooting each other.”

“I agree with the sentiment of conflict resolution,” she said. “But the ones who need that probably won’t hear the message.”

If the police are frustrated, there is a huge swatch of the population that is, too. Embittered. Feeling left behind. Seething. Bewildered. The pandemic has hammered the job market, especially hitting those in minority communities and in low-wage jobs.

People have been locked inside, away from their normal releases. This weekend features a host of club activities for people to blow off steam. (There will be very limited access to the game, which is played here. And there will be no other NBA events. All the parties and concerts and nightclub action is freelance. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms is asking people to chill and not create Super Spreader events. And behave themselves.)

I called LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, former head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Dekmar, who famously apologized for his department’s role in a 1940 lynching, is always thinking about crime, police and society.

He said a lot of the stuff you learned as a kid — like using your words, not your hands, to settle disputes — is for many not taught anymore.

“It’s a disintegration of different institutions,” he said, such as the family, school, church, even social programs.

“And after all these other institutions fail, we get a call,” Dekmar said. “The police are always the last to deal with it and are often the least successful.”

“Now police are reduced to public service announcements saying, ‘Oh, by the way, if you shoot someone, you’ll be arrested.’”

This Just In!

As I was finishing this column Thursday afternoon, AJC.com carried a breaking story, “Dispute leads to gunfire outside downtown Atlanta restaurant.”

A guy gets mad at an upscale restaurant, leaves, drives by and shoots up the front door. No one, fortunately, was hit. Obviously, his coping skills are lacking.

Perhaps police should issue their “Be nice” releases in capital letters.

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