Posted on January 18, 2021

Atlanta’s Deadliest Year in Decades Has City on Edge and Demanding Change

Shaddi Abusaid and Christian Boone, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 15, 2021

A teen selling water bottles killed over $10. A young man shot at a skate park. A child gunned down on the Fourth of July.

Their deaths were among the 157 homicides the Atlanta Police Department investigated in 2020, up from 99 in 2019 and the most in more than two decades.


Indeed, no corner of the city was spared. Kevin Humes, 35, was shot to death in May outside a Buckhead apartment complex. Jalanni Pless, 18, was shot to death in June while selling water in Midtown, the same month Andrew Scott Callahan, 37, was shot near the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark. Kalecia “Pinky” Williams, 16, was shot in December at a downtown hotel.

Police found the remains of a stabbing victim in the Summerhill area on Christmas Day.

The deadly surge has residents and business owners addled while police and city leaders struggle for solutions.

“I’ve never been afraid to get gas or go to the grocery store before,” said Buckhead resident Agie Rutkowski. “Now, if it’s dark outside, I don’t go out.”

Is the mayor to blame?

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was hailed after her response to destructive rioting in May after protests over the death of George Floyd devolved into chaos. Glamour featured her in its Women of the Year issue and her national profile soared amid talk of a position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.


Former APD investigator Lakea Gaither said Bottoms has “lost the confidence of the officers.” An 18-year veteran saluted as Officer of the Year in 2013 and Investigator of the Year in 2015, Gaither was one of 37 officers who either retired or resigned in a single month, August of last year.

More than 200 officers quit in 2020. Many left after Erika Shields stepped down as chief in June, shortly after former Officer Garrett Rolfe shot Rayshard Brooks after a scuffle in a Wendy’s parking lot near downtown. After Bottoms quickly announced that Rolfe had been fired and then-Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges, hundreds of officers staged an unofficial “blue flu” in protest.


“If the crime rate goes up, that’s going to be on the mayor,” former Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli said after Shields stepped down as Atlanta’s police chief. Seven months later, Atlanta is still without a permanent chief.


Bottoms notes correctly that Atlanta is among many major U.S. cities that experienced a violent crime surge in 2020.

Chicago recorded 774 homicides in 2020 up from 506 in 2019, according to a database maintained by the Chicago Sun-Times. New York City’s homicide count rose to 462 last year, up nearly 45% from 319 in 2019, The Washington Post reported, citing New York Police Department data.

Preliminary FBI data show killings rose nearly 21% nationwide through just the first nine months of 2020, but experts say the actual increase was even higher, particularly in major cities. Even areas with fewer than 10,000 residents saw 30% increases in killings, said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based data analyst and consultant who tracks crime statistics.

When all the data is collected Asher expects a nationwide spike in homicides somewhere in the 25-30% range, which would be the largest one-year increase since such statistics were collected.

New Orleans saw murder rates increase more than 60%, while homicides in Milwaukee nearly doubled last year. Minneapolis and Philadelphia also saw large increases, according to Asher.

Bottoms says pinning blame on her for Atlanta’s historically high homicide tally is “misplaced frustration.”

One 2020 shooting left a man dead near her southwest Atlanta home even as a patrol car sat outside her house, she noted.

“Even if we had officers on every single corner — and in this instance an officer was literally on the block — homicides can happen,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. {snip}

The national rise in crime coincided with the deadly coronavirus and the mass lockdowns it spurred, as well as the increased scrutiny of law enforcement following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Nirej Sekhon, an associate law professor at Georgia State University who specializes in criminal procedure and police practices, believes anxiety over coronavirus and outrage over police brutality contributed to last year’s deadly spike.


By early December, Atlanta’s murder rate rivaled Chicago’s, prompting some to call Atlanta “the Chicago of the South.”{snip}


Changes ahead

Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant said his department will work more closely with federal task forces as they ease policies that previously prohibited officers from wearing body cameras during joint operations.

The department has also reinstated its chase policy, which Shields had scrapped. New protocols require officers to get supervisor approval before engaging in a chase, and only when the suspect presents an imminent threat to public safety.

Bottoms, meanwhile, has formed a committee of city officials who will explore ways to crack down on so-called “nuisance properties” that have become hotspots for violent crime throughout Atlanta. She has also instructed city departments to be more aggressive in targeting bars and nightclubs that violate occupancy limits and remain open later than they’re allowed.

“We also will focus additional resources on our enforcement targeting gangs and gun violence,” she said recently, adding the police department will continue its partnership with the FBI targeting Atlanta’s most dangerous offenders, step up patrols in certain areas and team up with newly elected Fulton County Sheriff Patrick Labat to get more deputies on city streets during peak hours.


Officers have told the AJC that morale has sunk as the force has grown smaller. The department is down about 400 officers below what’s been authorized. While 115 recruits were hired in 2020, they’re still in training, a department spokesman said.


Stan Crowder, an associate criminal justice professor at Kennesaw State University, isn’t surprised morale dropped after criminal charges were brought against several officers amid last summer’s protests.

“The way law enforcement officers were treated by the district attorney and by politicians, you can see their hesitancy and lack of initiative because they don’t know who’s in their corner anymore,” he said. “That’s the reason APD has taken such a significant hit in the strength of the agency. Folks aren’t going to stay in places where they don’t feel comfortable.”


Most of last year’s homicides are still unsolved, according to the latest department data. As of this week, arrests have been made in just 73 of the 157 murder cases.