Atlanta Crime: What To Do About It?
Does Atlanta have a crime problem? Is it getting worse? An AJC article from January 2021 reports that homicides in Atlanta last year increased 58 percent from the prior year. 2020 was the deadliest year in more than two decades.
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms defends her administration by noting that crime has increased in cities around the country. Chicago, which has a reputation of having a high homicide rate, had 774 homicides last year compared to Atlanta’s 157. However, Chicago is a much bigger city. Chicago had 29 homicides per 100,000 population, and Atlanta had almost 31 per 100,000 population (using U.S. Census population estimates for 2019).
It is clear from news articles that many Atlantans think we have a crime problem. We all want to feel safe in our homes, on the streets, and in our neighborhoods. Growing evidence indicates that neither putting more cops on the streets, especially cops loaded down with surplus military gear, nor locking more people up decreases crime.
A Closer Look At Atlanta Crime
Inequality: Atlanta has the distinction of having the highest income inequality of any major U.S. city. In fact, according to an Atlanta effort to address this inequality, “if a person is born into poverty in Atlanta, there is just a 4 percent chance of escaping poverty in their lifetime. Almost 70 percent of Black families are liquid asset poor compared to 22 percent of white families. Today, the median household income for black Atlantans is just one-third that of whites. The statistics aren’t much better for Latino families, which maintain a median household income of just about half that of whites. Sixty-six percent of all Latino families in Atlanta are asset poor.”
Extreme inequality is highly correlated with higher crime. This compelling article outlines the problem and asserts that in violent cities and neighborhoods, reducing inequality is one of the most powerful ways to reduce violence. Crime also amplifies inequality. As violence rises, so do the politics of fear, scapegoating, and police misconduct.
Guns Everywhere: We need to be clear-eyed about our gun problem in Atlanta. Having a heavily armed citizenry clearly does not make us safer. Nor does it reduce crime. Patrick Sharkey, a professor of sociology and political science at Princeton University, in an article in the Washington Post writes, “The effort to reimagine public safety has to contend with two crises: a crisis of police legitimacy and a crisis of urban gun violence.” He argues that the presence of so many guns makes the job of policing much more dangerous for cops and can lead to aggressive police behavior. Starkey reasons “As long as cities have a gun problem, the problem of abusive and violent policing will be much harder to solve.”
And gun violence among citizens is increasing also. Sharkey adds, “The rate of fatal shootings has risen since 2014 in all but 12 of our largest 100 cities. In cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Houston and Kansas City, the rate of fatal shootings was well more than twice as high in 2020 than in 2014. Most of the increase came last year.
Atlanta criminal defense attorney Gerald Griggs observed, “In Georgia, we have a policy of guns everywhere.Then we get shocked when guns are everywhere. We need common sense gun safety. We need to have a conversation about Georgia’s love affair with guns.”
What doesn’t work: The last several decades of harsh mandatory sentences, mass incarceration, the militarization of our police department, and lack of funding for rehabilitation or resettlement has had disastrous consequences. One could argue these policies have made us less safe. Attorney Gerald Griggs notes, ”Mass incarceration didn’t work. When incarcerated people come back to the community, they are often just better criminals. We need to think about what type of citizen we want coming back to the community.”
What Can Be Done
Observers have noted that some of the rise in violent crime around the country could be because of the isolation and stress of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, as we slowly recover, violent crime will reduce. Another problem could be leadership within the Atlanta police department. After the June 2020 Rayshard Brooks shooting, the Atlanta police chief Erika Shields abruptly resigned. The mayor only this May has appointed a permanent chief. In addition, around 200 police resigned during 2020, adding to the already large number of vacancies. These are problems that should be quickly addressed by city leadership. The issues of guns everywhere and extreme inequality are much more difficult problems to tackle.
Last month, the Atlanta mayor called for a Task Force on Crime. This AJC article describes a bit about the mandate of the task force and here is a list of those appointed. They are meeting weekly, but apparently meetings are closed to the press and public because the task force is deemed part of the mayor’s cabinet. This is not a promising start.
To reduce homicides and other crimes, we must reduce inequality. However, this is a long-game, difficult problem that needs a range of public policies including better schools, affordable housing, better access to parks and transportation, job training and special support for at-risk youth to name some obvious needs.
Reducing the prevalence of guns is also intractable not only because of the prevalence of guns already in circulation, but also because of the pro gun attitude of the majority in our state legislature. While we work to both reduce income inequality and increase gun safety, other options need exploring and resourcing.
Defund the Police: This has become an important organizing slogan spurred on by the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent killings of mostly people of color by police. The Defund the Police movement had led activists and a few elected officials to start reimagining how our public safety dollars could be better allocated. For example, we could have more funding for mental health and addiction professionals who could be summoned instead of police. Or use cameras instead of police for routine traffic violations. There are a lot of good ideas that are being tested.
Preventing Violence: A promising idea that can easily and quickly be implemented is the concept of intervention on a micro-community level. One example of this is the Cure Violence program in New York City. The idea is to resource small, community based organizations or individuals with deep knowledge and connections to their neighborhoods to focus on violence prevention. Trained staff or volunteers can work to help at-risk residents solve problems or mediate conflicts without resorting to violence. Atlanta already has a similar program operating in the NPU-V neighborhoods. Also, in 2017 the Atlanta Police Department started a diversion program designed to provide alternatives to arrest. On the national level the Biden administration is calling for significant funding for community violence prevention programs.
Keith Strickland, an Atlantan and president of Making the Transition who has been working in community violence prevention for 15 years around the country says, “Crime is usually a by-product of needs that are not being filled: such as jobs, or job training all the way down to activities for youth. You have to give people some hope and a path forward to change their situation. They need a vision to keep them driven for a better life.”