OPINION: Deja vu on the Atlanta crime front? Maybe this time a break

220329-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens leads a press conference Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022, to announce the formation of a unit targeting repeat offenders.

 Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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220329-Atlanta-Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens leads a press conference Tuesday, Mar. 29, 2022, to announce the formation of a unit targeting repeat offenders. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

So, it seems that having a handful of crime fighters plugged in the right positions will help stem the wave of violence putting fear in the hearts of law-abiding Atlantans.

That’s my CliffsNotes version of a press conference held Tuesday where a host of local leaders, including Mayor Andre Dickens, announced the ever-latest effort to crack down on the hardened and dangerous.

The repeat offender tracking unit would identify criminals who already have three felony convictions at the time of their arrest and then keep tabs on them as their cases bob and weave through Fulton County’s justice system, which historically has been lousy at doing that.

“Any system that allows a cycle of career crime is a broken system,” said Dickens, who has been tasked with trying to tamp down a violent crime wave that took off in mid 2020. The new mayor fended off an effort by some residents in Buckhead to break away from the city by telling state leaders he has a plan to attack crime. Now he must deliver.

So far this year, it’s been a mixed bag for the new mayor. Crime overall is down about 5% compared to last year but the murder rate is up, with 35 homicides investigated as of March 19, compared to 25 last year, a 40% increase.

Since we’re talking about stats, here’s more: Dickens said that police estimate that 1,000 career criminals in Atlanta commit 40% of the crime.

The latest plan will create an office with two cops, a Fulton prosecutor, a couple of sheriff’s deputies and a state community services worker paired with some support staff to keep track of the Really Bad Guys upon their arrest. Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis said they’ll be given a “Scarlett Letter” so their cases won’t fall through the cracks. They will be tracked by prosecutors, magistrates and judges and then, conceivably, state parole officials down the line.

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Fulton County jail. AJC FILE PHOTO

Fulton County jail. AJC FILE PHOTO

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Fulton County jail. AJC FILE PHOTO

I was surprised by the apparently meager staffing afforded to this important office set up to attack this Sisyphean task. Mind you, Atlanta has at least 1,700 officers who made more than 16,600 arrests last year (more than 2,500 who were charged for serious crimes.) In all, Atlantans reported more than 21,500 “Part I crimes,” the crimes that the FBI tracks — from car break-ins to murders.

Shouldn’t this squad be bigger? Like waaaay bigger? I asked Police Chief Rodney Bryant. He said this was just a start and there would be more people added as the unit got up and running.

Fulton’s justice system has been referred to as a “revolving door” for years — decades, actually, a reality as enduring as hot summers. Bryant referred to this in passing, saying, “Now, we are very intentional about addressing our repeat offender issues that you have heard us talk about from this podium for many years.”

He is right. I have heard his predecessor, Chief Erika Shields, talk about repeat offenders, as well as previous chiefs George Turner, Richard Pennington, Beverly Harvard and Eldrin Bell. All have faced the cameras, looked real stern and said they weren’t playing around any more. In 1992, Bell and then-U.S. Attorney Joe Whitley did a local two-man roadshow about cracking down on the worst criminals. Current U.S. Attorney Kurt R. Erskine was on hand Tuesday. I’ll save you a list of all the federal prosecutors who’ve attended similar press conferences through the years.

But this effort is different, they said. This time, there will be a super duper computerized tracking system to monitor the Really Bad Guys. It will employ a cleaned-up database that will flag those in need of Scarlett Lettering. Those at the announcement used terms like “collaboration,” “cooperation,” and “laser focused” to describe the effort. Non-governmental groups like Central Atlanta Progress, The Midtown Alliance, the Buckhead Coalition and the Atlanta Police Foundation are all helping foot the bill.

Dickens said part of the problem through the years has been “overlapping and often inaccessible data.”

Hopefully, the untangling of this vast system of muddled records works because police — like the citizenry — have gotten frustrated by the seemingly unending lawlessness inflicted upon the city.

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An argument at a popular downtown restaurant and hookah lounge on March 22 escalated to gunfire, leaving one dead. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

An argument at a popular downtown restaurant and hookah lounge on March 22 escalated to gunfire, leaving one dead.  (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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An argument at a popular downtown restaurant and hookah lounge on March 22 escalated to gunfire, leaving one dead. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

APD has been increasingly testy in its public responses on the issue. Earlier in the month, the police put out a Facebook post, in part, saying:

“Police are expected to save wayward juveniles, fix broken repeat offender adults, provide jobs that pay a livable wage to youth selling water, find solutions to drug addiction and homelessness, stop gun violence where gun toting adults with poor impulse control and terrible anger management skills shoot each other in arguments just because, make gang bangers change their lives, stop the drivers in the four-door sedans who want to be Indy 500 car racers from laying drag, AND solve economic disparity (so criminals won’t “have” to steal and rob), all while responding to 911 calls and arresting robbery and murder suspects.”

It’s certainly a tall job. And all the while, making just $50K a year for doing it.

Last week, while briefing reporters on an arrest roundup, Major Theosie Williams, commander of the Special Enforcement division, indicated that the department’s Irritation Meter was hovering at 11. Those in his ranks, he said, “are all pissed off to the highest level of pisstivity, and that they’re frustrated with the crimes that are being committed in our city. So if you’re going to commit those crimes against us, we’re coming for you. And we want you to know that.”

Repeat offenders, please take note and behave.

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