OPINION: Atlanta mayor’s race a search to solve crime

210608-Atlanta-Felicia Moore, from left, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Antonio Brown and Walter Reeves participate in a forum for AtlantaMayor candidates sponsored by the Committee for a Better Atlanta on Tuesday morning, June 8, 2021 in Atlanta.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

210608-Atlanta-Felicia Moore, from left, Andre Dickens, Sharon Gay, Antonio Brown and Walter Reeves participate in a forum for AtlantaMayor candidates sponsored by the Committee for a Better Atlanta on Tuesday morning, June 8, 2021 in Atlanta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By now the statistics in the city are well documented — homicides are up more than 60% from this time last year.

But less well known is the sheer scope of the crimes, and the people they’re affecting. Some murders involve gangs. Many are arguments gone awry. Others stem from domestic violence. Nearly all involve guns.

But more and more, people just living their lives in Atlanta are falling victim to random crimes, too.

Out for a jog Saturday morning, Andrew Worrell was shot running along West Wesley Road in Buckhead.

Last week, 25-year-old Carmen Cai Yi Lee was shot to death in the driver’s seat of her car on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, and nobody knows why.

Two weeks before that, three men, Richard Sweeley, Volcan Topalli and Andre Bourdages, were separately shopping at the Home Depot on Piedmont Ave., when all three were shot in the store’s parking lot, caught in the crossfire of an argument that escalated at a nearby pool party.

There have been so many shootings over the last 18 months in Atlanta that the victims, dates, and times, disturbingly, start to run together.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has an entire reporting team dedicated to the grim task of documenting and reporting on crime and its victims. So many have been children it will break your heart.

Last year, 20 children were killed by gunfire in Metro Atlanta. And of the 62 homicides in the city so far this year, five victims are under the age of 18. That’s more than the horror of the missing and murdered children between 1979 and 1981 — and in a shorter period of time.

Most people know about the terrible death of 8-year-old Secoria Turner last July 4th, killed when a group of gunmen opened fire on her family’s car near the memorial for Rayshard Brooks.

And Kennedy Maxie, the 7-year-old riding in the backseat of her mother’s car after Christmas shopping when a stray bullet found her little body while they drove past Phipps Plaza.

Tyrell Sims, 11, died in a drive-by shooting outside his East Point home. Seven-year-old Gabriel Vasquez was killed when he was hit by a stray bullet shot from outside his family’s house. In February, 12-year-old David Mack was found shot in the woods behind his house.

The list tragically goes on. Diamond Johnson, De’onte Roberts, Ka’Mani’ Kirkland, Semaj Jones, Jalanni Pless, Brayan Zavala, Jonah Poole.

Above and beyond the murders, other shootings, robberies, and carjackings seem so commonplace that crime is almost starting to feel normal in Atlanta.

But it can’t be allowed to feel normal. And it shouldn’t. That is why it’s the single biggest issue the Atlanta mayor’s race will revolve around for the next six months.

That much was clear this weekend, when Sharon Gay, a lawyer in Atlanta and mayoral candidate, announced that she would add Dekalb’s former Police Chief as an advisor to her campaign the day after the Buckhead shooting spree.

Likewise, Council President and mayoral candidate Felicia Moore opened Monday’s city council meeting by saying what most Atlantans are feeling. “The public is scared,” she said. “People are feeling unsafe. People can feel they can’t jog, they can’t shop, they can’t get gas at the gas station.”

Andre Dickens, an at-large city councilman also running for mayor, suggested closing down restaurants that illegally operate as nightclubs, a hotbed of illegal activity in the city.

“We’re at that point of crisis,” Dickens said.

Antonio Brown, a progressive councilman running for mayor, had his Mercedes stolen on his way to a recent campaign event. He has said wants to reimagine public safety and policing but he, too, sounded worried when he addressed Police Chief Rodney Bryant at the council meeting Monday.

“What are we doing that’s different?” he asked.

And even before former Mayor Kasim Reed has declared that he’ll run , he told WSB-TV in May that the rise in violent crime was the reason he’s thinking about a comeback.

“I do know how to fix crime, and I do know I could turn our crime environment around in 180 days,” he said. “And I know that I’ve done it before.”

The challenge for the next mayor, of course, will be the same as the challenge for the current mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms — there are no easy answers to this mess.

Crimes, criminals and guns cross county lines and city boundaries. DA’s, judges, parole officers, and even schools play a huge role in the equation, beyond what a mayor can do. Criminal justice reform remains pressing. And if preventing murders were easy, somebody, somewhere would have done it by now.

Among the tactics Bottoms has already put in place: A $2,500 retention bonus for police officers after three years; legislation to deal with the nuisance properties that councilmembers pointed to; a new center to get young people off the streets and into mentorship programs; a plan to increase street lights in the city by 10,000.

On Monday, Chief Bryant announced that he plans to restructure the police department to expand the gun crimes and domestic crimes units.

Finally, the mayor and the City Council passed a budget that will increase police funding by 7%, the largest boost for any city department, and fund 150 additional officers and pay increases across the board.

But for all of the tactics, there’s something missing in the city’s response to the ongoing violence and it’s Bottoms herself.

In the hours after the jogger was shot in Buckhead Saturday, it was the police, not the mayor, who went to the cameras to explain to worried residents what had happened.

Later on Saturday, two more men were shot at the Intercontinental Hotel on Peachtree Street, including a 17-year-old, and the mayor was nowhere to be found.

After being so visible for so long at times of crisis, her absence leaves the city unsettled and residents asking what their leaders are doing to keep their families safe.

If the answer feels like, “not enough” look for more neighborhoods than Buckhead to seek the safety of self-reliance.

While there’s no way to build a wall to keep crime out, they can at least elect a mayor who shows up.

Crime won’t just be an issue in the mayor’s race, it may be the only issue. And it could eventually be the death of Atlanta if we don’t find our way out.