The new focus on gangs raises questions about just how significant the gang problem is in Atlanta. In the past, authorities downplayed the reach of gangs in the city. More often, they were viewed simply as packs of thugs committing opportunistic crimes.
It is unclear just how many gangs or gang members exist in Atlanta. Evidence of increased gang activity seems anecdotal. Specific numbers are as sketchy as the gangs themselves.
Still, authorities say city-based gangs have become more violent, organized and entrenched. Investigations of crimes over the past two years indicate gangs are drawing members not only from poor neighborhoods but also middle-class homes, allegedly even the stepson of a prominent politician and a respected Morehouse College student.
Atlanta has a growing gang problem in part, Howard said, because police and prosecutors didn’t see it coming. The perpetually undermanned APD had understaffed its gang unit and lacked intelligence about developing gangs. Authorities didn’t connect the dots between certain crimes. Robberies and homicides were seen as random events, not a pattern of profit-making and retaliation.
Pennington [Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington] said in late July he is more than quadrupling the department’s gang unit to 26 officers in hope of repeating the success against gangs the department saw in the 1990s.
The chief’s announcement, made at a news conference with Mayor Shirley Franklin, followed the carjacking of City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell and the shooting death of former boxing champ Vernon Forrest, killed in a robbery. Three men were arrested in the killing; police have not said if they were gang members.
The year began with the killing of popular Grant Park bartender John Henderson, who police say was shot by Jonathan Redding, a 17-year-old member of a gang called 30 Deep.
Howard says 30 Deep, based in the Mechanicsville neighborhood south of downtown, is a well-oiled enterprise, controlled by adults who recruit young teens. He described them as a prolific gang that has plagued retailers, carrying out smash-and-grab robberies that have netted thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Outraged boutique owners dubbed them the “Bluejean Bandits.”
Former Atlanta City Councilman Derrick Boazman said the lack of police pressure allowed 30 Deep, the Nine-Trey Bloods and other gangs to grow.
“We had a gang unit with six officers doing shift work. That lets you know gangs were not a priority for the police department,” said Boazman, now a community activist. “The gangs outsmarted us and our police department. They have become more ruthless and are willing to take life. It is really a reign of terror.”
‘We’ll hit them hard’
Atlanta police did not totally ignore gangs, but most investigations bringing indictments in recent years came while teaming up with federal authorities.
Focus on suburbs
For years, officials contended gangs were largely a suburban problem. Hispanic and Asian gangs–some with national affiliations and massive drug-dealing operations–had set up in immigrant communities in DeKalb, Gwinnett and Cobb counties.
In Atlanta, those claiming to be in gangs like the Crips, Bloods or Gangster Disciples were discounted as wannabes. This made the killings, home invasions and robberies carried out by such criminals seem haphazard and not as threatening.
Gang unit documents suggest that because of its small staffing, officers focused on federal investigations into gangs, such as the ultra-violent-13, a national gang with roots in Latin America.
Old order upset
Topalli [Georgia State professor Volkan Topalli, who studies violent crime] said Atlanta’s gangs are generally not the structured, hierarchical types found in places like Chicago or Los Angeles.
Topalli cites two factors in the seeming upsurge in gang activity: gentrification of former low-income areas and the demolition of public housing projects. Razing the projects has caused local, established gangs to move, “which rearranges and upsets the territorial balances the gangs had.” And more affluent people moving into urban areas puts them in higher-crime areas.
Residents see threat
Davis [Defense lawyer Mawuli Malcolm Davis, who grew up in Gangster Disciple territory in Chicago] said more middle-class kids were being drawn into gangs, which he partly blamed on the media-generated “thug culture.” “It is almost like a kid who is embarrassed by his privilege, trying to show he is as hard as those guys,” he said.
For instance, State Rep. Tyrone Brooks’ stepson Matthew Mitchell, a former college basketball player, is charged with murder. On Sept. 20, 2007, prosecutors say, Mitchell and five other men fired 70 shots at Christopher “Noonie” Copeland, who died from bullets that struck him, literally, from head to toe.
Atlanta detention officer Bruce Griggs said middle-class youths are drawn to gangs for the same reasons as project kids: protection, power, money and a glorification of gang culture. “It used to be a ‘hood problem,” he said. “Now it’s everybody’s problem.”
Derek Davis, 27, a former Morehouse student from an accomplished family, is accused of joining another family: Prosecutors say he participated in the Nine-Trey Bloods’ “discipline” of Cintron and is among those charged with his murder.
Konneh came to the hearing believing he knew his favored student well and that the charges would be dismissed. After all, Davis’ mother was a banker, his father was a counselor dealing with deviant behavior and his stepfather was a school board president in Texas.
After hearing the case against Davis, the professor no longer knew what to believe.
“When the prosecutor said there were other members of the gang at Atlanta University Center, that really scared me,” he said. “I left that place trembling.”