A specialty “gun court,” a firearms buyback program and an investigation of permits for late-night businesses are among the tactics authorities are considering as Buckhead deals with its share of a citywide spike in shootings and other crime, from street racing to water-selling.

But a crime-fighting challenge, especially on the shootings, is figuring out whether a common factor is driving the spike as anecdotes and rumors fly freely. Meanwhile, the police force is by all accounts stressed and dwindling both citywide and in Buckhead’s Zone 2 precinct.

“Zone 2 — I hate putting this out there,” said Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook, who represents much of north and central Buckhead, voicing frustration. “Zone 2 on a typical shift has all of 14 people on patrol for a zone the size of Rhode Island.”

Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook.

Hiring off-duty officers to patrol in police vehicles is an increasingly popular tactic. City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit in August hired an officer to watch Peachtree Road for street races, expressing his frustration. The Buckhead Community Improvement District has a specially branded patrol car driven around the central business area late at night by off-duty officers.

Shooting incidents have happened around the neighborhood this year, including two May killings on the street: one unsolved near the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center and one on Habersham Road where a teenager is charged with murder in what the Atlanta Police Department says may have been a robbery.

But a particular hot spot of concern is the area around Pharr Road and Grandview Avenue on the border of Buckhead Village and Garden Hills. Several shootings have happened in that area, including within the Allure at Buckhead Village apartments and at a Chevron gas station. Among the latest incidents was an Aug. 2 carjacking attempt at the gas station where suspects shot at the victim after he brandished a firearm, according to APD.

The Garden Hills Civic Association has a five-member “task force” looking into the local crime issue, member George Heery told Neighborhood Planning Unit B at its Aug. 4 meeting.

“We’re just pushing on everything you can think of,” said Heery. “…At night, it really is violent. We don’t feel safe walking.”

But few details were discussed, partly because community activists are being discrete and partly because of sheer lack of information. “We think there’s gangs,” said NPU-B chair Nancy Bliwise, voicing a common theory.

A common thread of community discussion is that some local restaurants might be operating after hours and drawing late-night gatherings that spawn crime, but exactly how is unclear. Heery said he’s seen “stunning” incidents at one restaurant and another GHCA resident said a local restaurant owner is “very dangerous,” but neither elaborated. GHCA president Clay Dixon later declined to comment. In the meeting and in interviews, other community figures spoke broadly of “rowdy” and “hip-hop” crowds.

Two businesses named by residents and officials as late-night gathering spots are Blue Restaurant & Lounge at 262 Pharr Road and Copper Cove Restaurant & Bistro at 2991 North Fulton Drive. The owners of the businesses did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

In the NPU-B meeting and in interviews, residents said there were reports of gunfire and street gambling near those businesses in recent weeks. But APD reports for May 1 through Aug. 18 showed no serious crimes reported there. Three incidents at Copper Cove were all parking lot accidents, the most serious of which happened during the day. The only incident within Blue was a violation of social distancing rules under the pandemic safety guidelines; there were also four vehicle break-ins or damage in a shared parking garage.

Hala Carey, a city solicitor, told NPU-B that the types of incidents APD has mentioned as occurring around the restaurants include noise, cars doing doughnut maneuvers, and some type of improper disposal of water bottles.

Alan Dobrin, co-owner of the Copper Cove property and several others in the area, said the owners have hired an off-duty police officer who is stationed near the restaurant on some nights.

APD initiated a city check on the status of licenses and permits for Blue and Copper Cove, Carey said, and the results were still pending.

Shook said in an interview that he successfully asked the state Department of Revenue to “come in and take a look” at various Buckhead businesses he would not name to check for tax compliance. He also said that, at his request, the City Auditor’s Office is conducting a “performance audit” of the city Licenses and Permits department due his longstanding concern that some area businesses continue to operate without proper paperwork.

“Are they understaffed, under-resourced? Are there inefficiency problems?” Shook said of the department. “Are they undersupported by other agencies with whom they have to collaborate in order to get a court outcome? Is it plain old graft? I just don’t know.”

Other tactics

Megan McCulloch, the Fulton County District Attorney Office’s community prosecutor for Zone 2 and Downtown’s Zone 5, told NPU-B she sought “community buy-in” for three tactics for addressing gun crime.

Megan McCulloch, the Fulton County District Attorney’s community prosecutor for Buckhead’s Zone 2 and Downtown’s Zone 5. (Special)

One is a specialty gun court, where a judge would hear only cases where the most serious charge related to guns. The intent is to speed up the adjudication process for such cases. The court would need Fulton County Board of Commissioners approval and funding, she said.

Another idea is a gun buyback program, where authorities offer cash or other incentives for turning in firearms that are then destroyed. She claimed such programs — which also require funding — have been shown to reduce gun violence when used in conjunction with other programs.

Dr. Garen Wintemute of California’s UC Davis Medical Center, a national expert on gun violence prevention, provided the Reporter with a 2013 journal article he co-authored that found that “gun buybacks do not reduce violence.” The study says buybacks can still be worthwhile for such purposes as awareness-raising and “changing public views toward firearms.”

A third idea is tighter rules for gun sales by pawn shops, which McCulloch said are a common source of guns used in crimes. That would take political action from the Board of Commissioners and the General Assembly, she said.

NPU-B members liked the gun court idea, while some questioned the effectiveness of gun buybacks. Bliwise noted that the ideas would take significant money that could be hard to get. She also asked who would coordinate such programs to make sure they don’t compete or overlap with other efforts.

McCulloch suggested “the community … because Buckhead has some powerful people, right? And you can get stuff done.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.