Buckhead, it seems, is on fire.
Murders, shootings, assaults, car thefts.
The numbers are stark. The number of murders is up 50% in the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 2, which includes Buckhead. Aggravated assaults are up 31%, car thefts are up 32%. The number of shootings is up 69%. These are all year-to-date for the last week of 2020.
The city’s numbers are worse. Year-to-date, murders are up 62%. Zone 2 climbed from six murders to nine. In Zone 5 — which includes parts of Midtown and Downtown – they are up 367%, from six in 2019 to 28 in 2020.
We need a fire hose, quick.
While we’re waiting, I reached out to the closest thing I could think of to a fire marshal.
David Wilkinson is the president and CEO of the Atlanta Police Foundation, whose goal is to make Atlanta the safest large city in the country.
For 22 years, he was a member of the Secret Service, most recently serving as the head of the Georgia region. When we talked in December, he was working with Jim Durrett at the Buckhead Coalition on the Buckhead Security Plan.
He said what Buckhead — and the city of Atlanta — is experiencing is a perfect storm, a term overused at this point, but apt nonetheless.
Let’s start with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The virus not only shut down the court system, but hundreds of inmates were released from the jails because of health concerns. Without judges and prosecutors to mete out punishment, criminals have become emboldened.
They, too, are adjusting to the new normal — fewer cars on the streets, less targets around office buildings and a population avoiding the usual spots.
Then there were the protests. Following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in May, thousands of individuals took to the streets.
Atlanta, which had been immune to such protests, experienced violent clashes, with people turning their rage — unfairly — on Atlanta police officers. These men and women were subjected to dehumanizing behavior — they were spit on, screamed at, hit with thrown objects, all because of the actions of individuals elsewhere.
During the chaos, several officers were fired for seemingly doing their jobs.
A few weeks later, an Atlanta police officer fatally shot Rayshard Brooks, and in the aftermath, Police Chief Erika Shields resigned. When Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard hinted he could pursue the death penalty against the officer, other officers called “in sick” en masse to protest what they saw as an attack on their due process rights and a failure to support rank-and-file ones.
Wilkinson said morale cratered.
Serving and protecting during a pandemic is a challenge, but leadership seemingly turning on the officers in the midst of it was the breaking point.
All of this has led to an atmosphere in which people intent on committing crimes are acting with impunity. The courts are shut down, there aren’t enough officers and bad guys are taking advantage of the pandemic.
Wilkinson said there are solutions.
The Buckhead Security Plan calls for off-duty uniformed officers and extra patrol cars to be placed in high-traffic areas, like Lenox Square mall. These officers would remain in place as a visible sign crime will not be tolerated.
The challenge for the APD is its officers are pulled in about a thousand directions when they are on duty, and therefore can’t stay in one place to act as a deterrent.
These guys and gals would fill that gap.
The plan also calls for more visible cameras, letting criminals know they are being watched and recorded. That is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire plan is laid out at www.buckheadis.com.
Finally, Wilkinson said, let the officers who serve our community know they are appreciated, which will improve moral, reduce attrition and attract new recruits.
Through the foundation, neighbors can help provide gift cards and sponsor meals for officers.
Two years ago, in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, I asked Shields why Atlanta didn’t have the same problems as other communities, especially considering the city is majority African American.
She said it was simple: Atlanta has the best officers. They reflect the communities they serve. The officers live in those communities. They attend events there when they are off duty. The communities know them, and they know their communities.
There is a lot of truth in what the chief told me that day. Atlanta is different. We are better. We unfortunately got caught up in the national zeitgeist this summer.
The reality is we support our men and women in blue, and I am confident we will get behind the Buckhead Security Plan.
It won’t be easy, but we, as a community, can help put this fire out.