OPINION: Shootings down, homicides up. The mystery of Atlanta’s murders

The body of a man who was found shot and dead inside a sedan is lifted into a van. The sedan crashed into a fence at a southwest Atlanta apartment complex on Friday, April 15, 2022. The crash occurred outside of the Donnelly Courts apartments.  (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The body of a man who was found shot and dead inside a sedan is lifted into a van. The sedan crashed into a fence at a southwest Atlanta apartment complex on Friday, April 15, 2022. The crash occurred outside of the Donnelly Courts apartments. (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Another wave of violence has rattled metro Atlanta, acts that seem shocking even to those benumbed to the barbarity.

Last week, a security guard was executed on Cleveland Avenue when a man calmly walked behind him and shot him in the head. It was caught on security video.

Saturday night, five teens were shot just yards from the giant SkyView Atlanta Ferris Wheel near Centennial Park. In the ensuing chaos, a teen carjacked a vehicle from a nearby valet so he could deliver two of the wounded to the hospital.

And in the realm of brutal irony, an 18-year-old was shot to death Sunday in a park in the city of South Fulton as an anti-violence rally chugged along nearby.

On Monday, soon-to-be retired Police Chief Rodney Bryant stood before the Atlanta City Council’s Public Safety Committee and spilled out numbers about the carnage on the city’s streets.

Councilwoman Marci Overstreet noted that a recent national survey showed Atlanta was No. 3 in the rate of increase in homicides during the first quarter of 2022. “This homicide rage,” she said, “is alarming.”

“Homicide numbers continue to increase on us,” said the chief, before adding a puzzling — and disturbing development. “The most concerning thing we see is that aggravated assault, which is generally a prerequisite to a homicide, those numbers are decreasing. This is not typical.”

220329-Atlanta-Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant answers a question during 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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Credit: Ben Gray

There have been at least 59 homicides investigated in Atlanta so far this year, compared to 40 at the same time in 2021. That’s a surge of nearly 50 percent. But at the same time, aggravated assaults have actually decreased.

So, fewer people are getting shot but many more are dying. This means shootings are more targeted. Or somehow more victims are unlucky.

Bryant remains befuddled by the trend and said police were doing a “deep dive” to figure out what’s up. He said violent crime in police Zones 3 and 5, on the south side, have traditionally been leaders in violence. However, he added that Zone 5 has seen an enormous swell in homicides this year. As of mid-month, Zone 5 had seen 10 homicides so far this year.

The same time last year? One.

“This is concerning because it is our downtown space,” Bryant said.

In an interview after the meeting, Councilman Michael Bond said events like Saturday night’s shootout downtown was “unacceptable.”

“That’s where you bring your grandchildren,” he said. “That’s Ground Zero for tourism in Atlanta.”

Bond, the son of civil rights leader Julian Bond, noted that he’s a progressive, “and we need to aspire to be better, more altruistic.” But. . .

“We need a more stepped-up approach to policing; it’s not time for all this kinder, gentler stuff,” he told me. “Criminals know they can come here and act like this. They are not afraid of the police. Criminals are exploiting younger people into crime. And now everyone has a gun.”

I called Columbus Ward, a 60-year resident of the Peoplestown neighborhood just south of downtown. “Now, you’re hearing the violence more,” he said. “You hear gunshots all the time, almost every day. People are driving by, hanging out of cars with guns. It’s so visible.”

Much of that mayhem, he says, is caused by gangs and social media feuds fueled by a brewing anger. “Before, (the violence) might be to warn somebody, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ Now, it’s just, ‘Take ‘em out.’”

Police and public officials must somehow connect with teens, those who are at a crossroad in life and whose futures are still salvageable, Ward said. “They’re the ones you can still reach. They’re reaching out for help.”

He added, “Police need to go beyond. Maybe get the gangs talking with each other.”

Man charged with shooting Atlanta police officer six times

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APD is badly understaffed, at probably 500 less than the 2,000-cop goal. Still, Bryant told council members the department is stepping up programs like the Police Athletic League to reach out to those who might travel a wayward path.

I called Antonio Lewis, who was elected to the Atlanta council last year. He said there is a “systematic failure” in the justice system, as evidenced by a magistrate judge recently issuing bond of less than $400,000 to Christian Eppinger, a 22-year-old with a record of violent crimes who is accused of shooting an Atlanta police officer six times. The officer, gang-crimes officer David Rodgers, survived. An outcry by cops, politicians and Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis caused a judge to greatly increase the bond.

“I knew that guy, he was banned from the barber shop; we didn’t want him in the neighborhood,” Lewis said. “We’re trying our best but you have things like this occurring.”

Willis “is wasting funding; she’s chasing Trump,” Lewis said of the DA’s investigation of the former president for election meddling.

Willis has said she assigned 10 staff members (not all lawyers) from her office of about 360 to the case.

Coreen Dent, president of the Southside Concerned Citizens, said a growth of gangs is driving the violence. “You’re seeing things like you only saw on television,” she said of violent crime. “It’s every day, like it’s almost normal. But it’s not normal. There are more good people than bad.”

It’s just the bad have been much noisier.