Buckhead’s police commander and two of its City Council members are expressing anger over the apparently random shooting of a 7-year-old girl Dec. 21 as she rode in a car past the luxury Phipps Plaza mall, an incident that is crystallizing local outrage over rising gun crime.

The shooting of the girl, who remained in critical condition Dec. 22, caps a year of gun violence and other crime that has infuriated and terrified residents and business leaders. Earlier this month, officials and private organizations developed a “Buckhead Security Plan” that calls for beefing up tactics and politically challenges Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to denounce crime. Councilmembers Howard Shook and J.P. Matzigkeit, who were involved in creating that plan, both said they are looking for more action from the Mayor’s Office in the wake of the shooting.

Atlanta City Councilmember Howard Shook.

In a scathing written statement, Shook said, “It will take a lot to turn this around. But here, in descending order, are the three things we need to begin: 1) Leadership; 2) Some leadership; 3) Any leadership.”

“This has to end,” said Matzigkeit in a phone interview. “We are at war with crime and we have to start acting like it.”

Atlanta Police Maj. Andrew Senzer, the commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 precinct, spoke about the shooting at a Dec. 22 press conference.

“First, on behalf of the men and women of the Zone 2 precinct, our hearts go out to the victim and the families,” said Senzer. “When something like this happens in our zone, we all take it personally. It angers us, and we shouldn’t have to be here talking about a senseless act of gun violence.”

Atlanta Police Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 precinct. (APD)

Senzer took command of the precinct a little over a year ago and promised a “zero-tolerance” approach to crime hotspots. But, he has said repeatedly, the pandemic has left officers hobbled because the rest of the criminal justice system is largely shut down.

Phipps Plaza’s neighboring sister mall, Lenox Square, has been the scene of a string of shootings over the past 12 months, recently leading to the extraordinary deployment of metal detectors and gun-sniffing dogs. Asked at the press conference what he would say to people fearful of shopping in Buckhead, Senzer said of Lenox Square, “Just understand that you probably have the most concentrated law enforcement presence within that mall than in any area of the city at any given time.”

Senzer also noted that officers have successes in stopping criminals, though his example might not be comforting. “We stop individuals with guns on a weekly basis,” said Senzer, including a man who was detained the very day of the shooting at a local mall after he threw a gun into a garbage can and ran away.

At the same press conference, Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant said Atlanta and many cities nationwide face a fundamental problem of a “proliferation of weapons” and related shootings. Senzer has repeatedly implored the public to help with another type of crime on the rise in Buckhead: thefts from cars left unlocked where the burglars often take guns left unsecured inside them.

Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit.

Matzigkeit said fear of crime is pervasive in Buckhead. “What I’m hearing from my constituents is that they are frightened by the lawlessness and the seeming randomness of this violence [and] that they could be going to the gas station or the mall or the shopping center and be caught in the crossfire,” he said. “And unfortunately that is what happened in this situation, and we have a 7-year-old girl shot in the head.”

“To me, this just reinforces the need for the Buckhead Security Plan, and it can’t get here soon enough,” said Matzigkeit.

That plan specifically calls on Bottoms to publicly denounce crime. “I guess I would look to the mayor and the administration to focus their energy and effort on fighting crime and working to turn this kind of lawless behavior around,” said Matzigkeit. “And the council stands ready to work with the mayor in this important work.”

In his written statement, Shook was less sparing of the administration.

“I lack the words to adequately convey the despair and anger so many of us feel about this latest and most painful example of the utter lawlessness that defines what it means to live in Atlanta,” Shook wrote. “It is obvious that the civilian authorities do not control the streets and cannot provide even a token feeling of safety beyond our front doors.

“To the administration, I don’t want to hear the word ‘uptick,’” he continued. “Stop minimizing our concerns by telling us that ‘crime is up everywhere.’ Spare us from the lie that the steady outflow of our officers isn’t as bad as it is. And please, not another throw-away press conference utterly devoid of game-changing action steps.”

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