OPINION: Trying to make sense of Atlanta crime in the coronavirus era

A woman filled with emotion cries on the sidewalk along Sunset Avenue. Two people were killed and two others were injured early Friday, July 24, 2020, when gunfire erupted outside a house party in northwest Atlanta's Vine City neighborhood, authorities said. The victims had just gotten out of a ride-share vehicle on Sunset Avenue about 2:30 a.m. when two suspects opened fire on them, Atlanta police Lt. Pete Malecki told reporters outside the home. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Atlanta is undergoing a strange dichotomy. Crime overall is down 20% so far this year and has plummeted by a third since mid-March, according to Atlanta Police Department statistics. It’s a COVID-19 silver lining in an otherwise dire year.

BUT there has been a massive increase in homicides and shootings. Killings are up 42% compared to last year, according to APD stats.

Atlanta is not alone in this phenomenon. Last month, The New York Times ran a story headlined: “It’s Been ‘Such a Weird Year.’ That’s Also Reflected in Crime Statistics.”

That story said “overall crime is down 5.3% in 25 large American cities” compared to last year. But murder is up 16.1%.

Atlanta is like those cities, but much more so. The drop in overall crime here is deeper. The rise in murder is scarier.

Even more troubling is this: Since the weekend the George Floyd protests started, homicides in Atlanta have nearly tripled — up 170% to be precise, according to APD statistics.

There have been 46 killings in the city from May 31 to August 8. Last year during that time? Just 17.

Homicide increases have continued unabated for 10 weeks since May 31 and there’s been no let up. On Tuesday morning, police put out a public plea for leads in the shooting death of Michael Heard, who was found Friday in his southwest Atlanta apartment.

Police need help because (A) there are a lot more murders and (B) many residents are not helping cops. Police are held in disregard by a segment of the population following the killing of Floyd by Minneapolis officers in May and then the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta police in June.

Murders are harder to solve. By this time last year, Atlanta cops had cleared 43 of 57 murders by arrests, or 75%. This year, it’s 46 cleared out of 81, or 57%.

Two men died on the morning of July 22, 2020, after they were shot at a northwest Atlanta recording studio, according to police. Officers responded to the shooting in the 2600 block of Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway about 2 a.m., Atlanta police spokeswoman Marla Jean Rooker told AJC.com. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

The number of people getting shot in Atlanta during the period of May 31 to August 8 has also skyrocketed compared to last year, a 76% increase in such carnage. That’s 220 people rushed to the hospital or transported to the morgue during that time. Last year it was 125, according to APD stats.

I’ll get to the reasons for shooting increases later, but let us soak in the good news. Overall crime is down so far this year including rapes (-56%), robberies (-27%), burglaries (-24%), larcenies from autos (-22%), larcenies (-27%) and auto thefts (-13%).

Normally, all that would make a dyspeptic police sergeant chortle with delight, but with all the bullets flying it’s hard to crack a smile.

David Abrams, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, crunched numbers and said, “Crime reports and arrests fell significantly in almost every city we examined in response to the pandemic.”

He said cellphone mobility records show that people started sheltering in place almost immediately in March, apparently including criminals. He said overall crime dropped 22% for the month after stay-at-home orders were put in place.

“If you are a criminal, you have fewer targets,” Abrams said. People are at home during the day, so their doors aren’t getting kicked in. They aren’t out at bars late at night, so they aren’t getting robbed walking back to their cars. Stores were shuttered, so shoplifting declined.

Shootings did not drop, however.

“If they’re engaged in that kind of business, stay-at-home orders don’t matter,” he said. (Even the anti-murder statutes don’t faze them.)

So why have shootings increased?

In June, protests and unrest started in Atlanta after Floyd’s death and then, after Brooks was killed, parts of the city exploded in anger. Police had to contend with protesters and often were put on the defensive by angry crowds when arriving at a crime scene. Or they did not show up at all. A “Blue Flu” affected the department after six cops were criminally charged for using Tasers on two college students, and then two other officers were quickly charged in Brooks’ death.

This screen grab taken from body camera video provided by the Atlanta Police Department on June 12, 2020, shows Rayshard Brooks, right, speaking with Officer Garrett Rolfe in the parking lot of a Wendy's restaurant, prior to being fatally shot by Rolfe. (Atlanta Police Department/Zuma Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

I talked with Jason Segura, head of the Atlanta police union, and he contends that decisions on firing and charging cops with crimes were based on politics, not procedure. So, he said, “The proactive policing, where you engage people in suspicious behavior, those (stops) are not happening.”

In the third week of June, Atlanta cops made 50 traffic stops. A year earlier, they made 3,000 that same week.

“Police officers want to police,” Segura said. “We know the victims. We want to help the community. We’re not asking to change the rules (of engagement in making arrests). We’re asking to follow the rules.”

In an emailed comment, Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant told me that officers are again making traffic stops. Last week, they made about 2,000, which is off 40% from last year but in line with the number of stops that occurred after COVID-19 hit.

He said the Police Department “is moving back to an operational routine; as routine as we can be during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Bryant said violent crimes may be the result of the coronavirus forcing the closing courts and “the release of some offenders from jails. Additionally, couple the impacts of the pandemic with the sentiments towards police and the effects it has had in many major cities.”

He said the protests and the ensuing riots “tested our staffing resources and required all law enforcement staff to work 12-hour shifts.” Cops were pulled from regular jobs to police the demonstrations. All of these events impacted the crime uptick, he said.

Now that the protests are quieting, the police chief said APD has resumed standard patrols and will focus attention on the areas that are seeing rising crime.

“We are confident that with our increased presence in these zones, we will see a reduction in these numbers and start to see statistics that are normal for the city,” Bryant said.

In the meantime, it might be wise to keep your head down.

In Other News