OPINION: Mayor Dickens tries to engineer solutions to crime issue

There’s something about a wild shootout in a park — one that kills two adults and critically wounds a 6-year-old girl — that will bring the mayor before the city council to give a rambling discourse on crime.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, now in his eighth month in office, came to lobby council members on two initiatives in his crime-fighting plans: renting out the city’s jail to Fulton County and toughening up ways to crack down on problematic businesses. But a gun battle following a Sunday softball game at a park just south of downtown was certainly tops on everyone’s mind.

Dickens delivered the tough talk that mayors must dutifully employ in such situations: “If you pull a gun in this town you are going to jail.”

But Dickens, a Georgia Tech grad who’s also a policy wonk with a chemical engineer’s brain, quickly dove into the weeds. He offered up stats, factoids and program initiatives during a half-hour soliloquy capped off by a Q&A with the council’s Public Safety Committee.

First off, he said, was things aren’t as bad as you think.

“When you watch the news, read the news and get on your social media, you would think that everything is on fire,” Dickens said. “We are down in every (crime) category over the last 28 days.”

Actually, that was the mayor’s political brain speaking.

Murders decreased drastically from last year over that period, from 16 to 5. But seven of the eight other crime categories increased. That includes rape, aggravated assault, robbery and burglary. And homicides are still trending above last year’s total and will probably hit the 100 mark this week.

The mayor also ticked off statistics that indicate not as many youths are getting arrested this year and crime in parks is down. However, shootings at two other parks last week, followed by Sunday’s tragedy, sure dampened that talking point.

“What we are putting in place, ladies and gentlemen, is working,” Dickens said. “My message to the residents and visitors of Atlanta is clear — our city is open for business and enjoyment.”

A few hours after his speechifying, a man was shot a block from the Mechanicsville park where the two were killed Sunday and another person was shot on Peachtree Street downtown after refusing a man’s request to see his phone.

The mayor’s visit to the council was to get support for his effort to rent the city’s largely unused jail downtown to Fulton County, which is farming out prisoners to other jails, as well as having them sleep on the floor.

Dickens used the term “humanitarian” several times to win over those not on board with the idea of turning over the keys of the city jail to Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat. Also, he noted, 80% of Labat’s customers come from Atlanta.

“It ain’t our fault but it’s our problem,” he said.

The plan to rent out 700 beds at the city jail has drawn protest and debate. At least five members of the Southern Center for Human Rights told the council the plan was anything but humanitarian.

A couple of investigators from the organization, which has sued Fulton several times, detailed the decades-long history of overcrowding and mistreatment at the jail, with stories of prisoners locked up without much-needed mental health treatment while watching sludge seep up from sewers.

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Credit: Miguel Martinez

Southern Center staffer Mary Sidney Harbert said Fulton has over the years spent $1 billion in an expensive game of Whac-A-Mole and this is simply the latest Band-Aid.

Devin Franklin, a Southern Center lawyer, said a study showed 650 people are incarcerated there on drug or offenses like shoplifting, 630 received bonds from judges but can’t afford them, and almost 1,100 were awaiting indictment. Franklin and City Councilman Michael Bonds went back and forth after the lawyer called out Bonds by name, extending the already long lunchtime meeting to past dinner time.

The matter was passed 5-1 and will head to the full council for more protests.

The other law-and-order initiative before the board was a proposal to make it easier to punish businesses — basically nightclubs, convenience stores and gas stations —where Atlanta’s crazy stuff happens. Atlantans are used to flipping on the morning TV news and seeing visions of police crime tape and a reporter saying “in an overnight shooting at...”

The effort would put some sort of guidepost, like a number of violent incidents within a certain period of time, that would turn the “Dance The Night Away Nightclub” into a public nuisance needing to get shut down.

Sarah Kim, proprietor of Our Bar ATL on Edgewood Avenue, is worried about the city keeping a hidden “nuisance list” of businesses seen as troublesome.

The popular Edgewood nightlife district has seen many shootings and instances of early-morning mayhem, and Kim is alarmed that businesses could be tagged for closure for crimes that occur outside their premises.

“If unruly customers are kicked out of establishments but they stay and loiter outside, what do you officially recommend businesses to do?” she asked the council.

A good question and some great minds will be pondering things like that in the upcoming weeks.