Amid an increase in shootings and quality-of-life crimes like street racing, political momentum is building for a neighborhood-wide private police force of off-duty officers already dubbed “Buckhead Blue.”

Envisioned as a larger version of a Midtown program called “Midtown Blue,” the Buckhead concept was proposed at a September community meeting by Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts, who recently moved to Peachtree Road and got an earful of street-racing noise. The idea was greeted with interest from leaders of neighborhood and business groups and such elected officials as City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.

“We’re at war against crime and we need to act like it,” Matzigkeit said he told attendees at a private Sept. 24 virtual meeting that included interim Atlanta Police Chief Rodney Bryant and officials with the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District. “I don’t get the sense of urgency… from people that I would like to get that sense of urgency from,” he said.

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.(Special)

“Buckhead Blue” is just one idea reportedly discussed in that meeting and in others as groups like the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods (BCN) call for a crackdown on crime with such strategies as tougher sentencing. That approach is markedly different from the calls for more restraints on policing in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, including many held in Buckhead. A big factor is controversy over Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ handling of crime and the June police killing of Rayshard Brooks, which led locally popular Police Chief Erika Shields to step down and is spurring a minor movement toward separate cityhood for Buckhead.

Asked about the protests, Matzigkeit said they have not factored into his discussions so far. But he also stepped back from the war metaphor, saying that privately hired police could do more than arrest suspects. He pointed to another ongoing effort to check the licenses, permits and taxes of area restaurants that many officials and neighborhood association leaders believe may be operating improperly after-hours or as nightclubs.

“You can enforce the laws with police with guns. You can also enforce the laws with people with calculators and pencils,” said Matzigkeit.

Enforcing any laws with off-duty police officers requires something else: money, and probably a lot of it. Buckhead is already paying for a lot of private security, from a new CID patrol-car program to long-standing arrangements by individual homeowner associations and shopping center landlords. “Buckhead Blue” might incorporate such programs and expand it, leaving open questions of who would pay for and coordinate it. Also yet to be seen is whether the Atlanta Police Department, which is said to have shrinking ranks amid morale issues, could provide enough officers.

Crime concerns

Crime is down citywide, but Buckhead community groups have been rattled most of the year by an outbreak of gun violence, including two killings on public streets. The neighborhood also has been agitated by its share of citywide quality-of-life and safety issues, including street racing and young people selling water along roadways.

The water-selling issue showed Buckhead’s taste for a crackdown. Earlier this year, while the Bottoms administration spoke of tolerance and had an advisory council working on an entrepreneurship diversion policy, APD’s Buckhead-based Zone 2 precinct arrested two juvenile water-sellers and had a press release issued to highlight weapons-related charges and alleged lack of cooperation from Fulton County youth detention officials. Maj. Andrew Senzer, Zone 2’s commander, told the BCN at its Sept. 10 meeting that APD decided “it was just time to take action, regardless of what the city’s overall position was.” The effort was successful in driving water-sellers out of Buckhead, Senzer said. The move came amid pressure for a crackdown from the Buckhead CID.

Robb Pitts.
Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts.

At the Sept. 10 meeting, the BCN laid out a “resolution” proposing legal crackdowns on noise violations, illegal nightclubs and street racing. The resolution — since approved by a majority of the BCN’s member neighborhood associations — seeks to tackle street racing with such tactics as seizing vehicles from suspects and inflicting higher fines and jail terms, including on spectators. All of those provisions were recently considered by the City Council and rejected as violating state laws and, in the case of arresting spectators, possibly the Georgia and U.S. constitutions. However, local state Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) later said she is working on legislation to authorize impounding street racing cars.

Senzer said that a couple of APD vehicles can scare off a large crowd of street racers; the problem is preventing them from moving elsewhere in the community. Pitts then explained that he recently moved to Peachtree Road and witnessed the loud street racing first-hand. He said that “it may be time for us to look at something like… ‘Midtown Blue.’”

‘Midtown Blue’

“Midtown Blue” was created 20 years ago by the Midtown Alliance, a nonprofit organization, in conjunction with its then-new community improvement district, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners called the Midtown Improvement District. Its chief element is patrols conducted at all times by more than 40 off-duty APD officers as well as a staff of private security officers who lack arrest powers. It also includes a network of security cameras and outreach on such issues as code enforcement and security audits.

Brian Carr of the Midtown Alliance. (Special)

“Public safety was an impetus for the creation of the Midtown community improvement district, to add an additional layer of security patrols and protection beyond APD’s normal level of service,” said Brian Carr, a Midtown Alliance spokesperson. “At the time, Midtown was a disinvested place, with vice and other challenges that did not contribute to a sense of safety and well-being, especially after dark.”

Carr said the program amounts to 750 additional officer-hours of patrols per week above those provided by APD’s Zone 5 Midtown precinct, with which “Midtown Blue” shares a joint office. He credits the program with keeping Midtown crime low, citing such stats as four pedestrian robberies so far this year in the dense, popular neighborhood.

The year’s debate about policing reforms did not touch “Midtown Blue,” said Carr. “Our program continues to operate as it did before the protests against racial inequality,” he said.

If Buckhead created a similar program, Carr said, the Midtown Alliance does not expect that it would be harmed by competition for off-duty officers.

“Midtown Blue” is fully funded by the Midtown Improvement District, said Carr, who estimated the program’s cost this year to be around $1.8 million.

For a similar “Buckhead Blue,” the natural organizer would be the Buckhead CID and its similar nonprofit companion, the Buckhead Coalition, which this year became led by the same person, Jim Durrett, and partially merged staff members. The Buckhead CID this year began operating a single-car patrol by an off-duty APD officer in a specially branded vehicle.

But the CID can operate only in the central business district, while community advocates want a neighborhood-wide program. Still, the Buckhead CID’s resources and expertise would be significant. But its internal conversations are unclear, as Durrett declined to comment.

The involvement of the quasi-governmental CID and the private Buckhead Coalition also raise transparency questions. Planning, budgeting and supervision of on-duty APD officers is done through public processes. A privately run “Buckhead Blue” might not be the same.

One early discussion was already secret. When the Reporter asked for access to the Sept. 24 virtual meeting that Matzigkeit attended, Durrett and Lynn Rainey, an attorney for both the Buckhead and Midtown CIDs, said no. Durrett said that was “because media can have a chilling effect on the conversation… I also did not want this to open to the general public.” Among the invitees was the Buckhead CID board, and if a quorum attended, the meeting had to be open to the public under the state Open Meeting Act, according to David Hudson, an attorney and board member at the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. Rainey argued the CID is not subject to open meeting laws, though the Georgia Attorney General’s Office has issued an opinion to the contrary.

The one group that definitely won’t be providing more money or officers, Matzigkeit says, is the city of Atlanta.

“I don’t see the city being able to really pull more resources into Buckhead,” he said. “If we want it done, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

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