OPINION: Murder, mayhem, donuts and a crazed year in public safety

As “Turbulent 2020″ comes to an end, Atlanta Assistant Police Chief Todd Coyt this week briefed City Council members about how the department is mopping up the street racing phenomena that beleaguered residents this year.

The racers are finally slowing down, he told the public safety committee. Arrests are up, complaints are down. Part of it is strategies and investigations police have employed, like monitoring social media to see where the action will be. Part of it is cooler temps. Or maybe the enthusiasts have simply seen enough donuts for the year and are refocusing their energies on something else. Perhaps Christmas shopping.

In anticipation, Lenox Square just announced it will install metal detectors and add canine units to make the mall a bit more secure, given that the city’s premier shopping destination has become a shooting gallery of late.

Yes, violence and tumult have become the norm during this very chaotic, strange and brutal year. After decades of dropping crimes rates, Atlanta and other big cities are taking it on the chin.

Name it and it’s occurred. A pandemic cleared the streets of people and a lot of the crime. Then George Floyd got smothered in Minneapolis in late May and people came back to the streets in throngs. Angry and frustrated people. Protests against police brutality then led to looting and street confrontations with police.

In June, a man named Rayshard Brooks, found asleep at the wheel in a fast-food drive-thru and suspected of DUI, was shot to death outside a Wendy’s by an Atlanta cop, spiraling the already-on-edge city into an even darker place. Before long, the burned-out eatery became an impromptu shrine and de facto armed camp as self-appointed militia members stopped cars and refused to let certain people through.

People started getting shot there as police leaned back from enforcing order at the site per instructions from City Hall. The city’s leadership wanted to avoid confrontation. Instead they got a dead 8-year-old girl. Secoriea Turner was killed near the Wendy’s on July Fourth when gunmen opened up on the family car. In all, 28 people were shot citywide within 24 hours, three of them fatally.



“The upheaval was consistent,” said Councilman Michael Bond. “The events were not just happening, they were churning. It was like someone cold-cocked the city between the eyes. It reminded me of New York in the ‘70s: Son of Sam, heat waves, blackouts, riots, a Dog Day Afternoon. Atlanta just didn’t feel the same this year.”

Bond, the son of civil rights activist Julian Bond, said he was “glad to see the protests and activism but dismayed to see the violence.” He said the protests of his father’s era “were planned and directed and focused. This didn’t feel like that. It felt like an outcry.”

Police started calling in sick and backing off from so-called proactive policing after several officers were arrested on brutality charges. Scores more quit or retired.

Residents and visitors intent on mayhem noticed. Since July, the violence has ebbed and flowed, as has the blood.

As of Sunday, there were 146 homicides in Atlanta compared to 99 for all of last year. In fact, the city’s murder rate rivals Chicago’s.

Through Dec. 7, Chicago has had 727 murders or 26.9 per 100,000 people. The city of Atlanta, which is one-fifth the size, has had 28.8 homicides per 100,000.

Coyt reminded City Council members that crime is officially down overall in Atlanta this year. But that feels empty, a number driven by drops in reported thefts, burglaries and larcenies from autos. Homicides and aggravated assaults are up, especially in southwest Atlanta. In fact, at least 10 people have been killed there so far this month.

“The upheaval was consistent. The events were not just happening, they were churning. It was like someone cold-cocked the city between the eyes. It reminded me of New York in the ‘70s: Son of Sam, heat waves, blackouts, riots, a Dog Day Afternoon. Atlanta just didn't feel the same this year."

- Atlanta Councilman Michael Bond

Bond asked Coyt who’s shooting who? Are there relationships between the victims and perpetrators or is it stranger-on-stranger?

It’s acquaintances, Coyt responded. “They’re not friends or relatives but they know each other.” Gang-related, he ventured, or “illegal business related.”

Also, it seems there are lots of late-night, who-you-lookin’-at disputes that end badly.

In an interview, Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum called 2020 a “year for the history books,” one that had officers maintaining social-distanced policing in a pandemic-silenced city and then suddenly tossed into a maelstrom.

“It was surreal. I stood there at the corner of Marietta Street and (Centennial Olympic Park Drive),” he said, referring to the scene outside CNN Center on May 29 when things got rowdy and a police car burned. “I saw stuff being thrown at officers but also saw some good conversations.”

Asked about morale, which plummeted on the force, Schierbaum said, “It was a tough summer. But we are getting better. We have a ways to go to get morale back up. But you’re seeing more arrests, and if you had a demoralized department, you wouldn’t have those arrests.”

During the height of the summer’s tumult, the City Council narrowly defeated (8-7) an effort to withhold $73 million of the department’s budget until the mayor’s office could come up with a plan to reinvent policing in Atlanta.

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who heads the public safety committee, led the effort to defeat that proposal.

“I’m not saying I’m not for reimagining the Police Department. We need to look at the ills of the Police Department,” she told me. “But that’s a long-term situation. It is a marathon.”

The effort was defeated by a core of African American council members from the Southside. “That whole ‘defund the police’ thing didn’t come from Black folks in the trenches. It came from whites who wanted to do the right thing,” Sheperd said.

“I came up poor Black and have had family members in jail. I’ve used my house to bail people out,” said the councilwoman of 16 years. “But people in the Black community say that we need police. They say if you think you have problems now, wait until you don’t have police in the street. It’s so much deeper than, click, change the law.”