Pandemic-shuttered courts and gunmen fearlessly ignoring a “heavy police presence” are unique factors in Atlanta’s rising crime, Buckhead’s police commander said at a Jan. 5 community meeting where another official announced the coming launch of a third public-private police patrol car in the central business district.

“The type of violence that we’re seeing right now is something I haven’t seen before — just the blatant disregard for law enforcement,” said Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 2 precinct, while speaking to crime-frightened residents at the meeting of Neighborhood Planning Unit B.

In wide-ranging comments, Senzer variously supported and soothed local crime concerns and related proposals to beef up existing public safety programs described in a new “Buckhead Security Plan.” That plan politically challenges Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the Black Lives Matter movement. Senzer avoided direct comment on those topics, but backed some of Bottoms’ claims about the causes of crimes while saying APD would like see the force boosted in part by “disenfranchised officers from Seattle and Portland,” cities that were flashpoints of national police-reform controversies during last year’s George Floyd protests.

Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 2 precinct in Buckhead, speaks to Neighborhood Planning Unit B on Jan. 5.

Contradicting a common narrative of a totally overwhelmed police force, Senzer said his officers are making many key arrests. The “biggest thing,” he said, is the pandemic-safety shutdown of most state courts, delaying or denying further consequences for defendants.

“We need the courts to be open right now. I think that’s the biggest thing. … I think that’s one of the biggest impediments to us being able to curtail this activity,” said Senzer. “Our guys are out there. We’re doing our jobs.”

Jim Durrett, president of the Buckhead Coalition and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, said the Coalition’s outgoing and incoming board chairs will meet next week with Bottoms to discuss crime concerns. Durrett also announced that the CID will fund a third so-called supplement patrol, involving an off-duty officer in a patrol car jointly operated with APD. The CID currently has one such patrol on duty and another to be launched early this year.

Such patrols — and coordination with others operated by neighborhood associations and businesses — are a major feature of the “Buckhead Security Plan.” Senzer said they are important.

“We rely a lot on the supplemental security patrols that are part of the ‘Buckhead Security Plan,’” he said.

“I’m encouraged by what she’s done, by what her administration has done recently,” said Durrett, whose organizations were key creators of the “Buckhead Security Plan,” of Bottom’s response to crime concerns. He also praised the City Council.

Jim Durrett, Buckhead Coalition president and Buckhead Community Improvement District executive director.

Among Bottom’s recent responses was issuing her administration’s own crime plan, called “The One Atlanta: One APD Immediate Action Plan.” The brief document essentially repackages and promotes several previously announced initiatives to boost existing police programs and staffing.

Resident fears

NPU B board members Abbie Shepherd and George Heery, who are local real estate agents, described some of the community fears and concerns during roughly 18 months of rising crime, especially shootings.

Shepherd described some residents around Buckhead Village as having their children sleep in back rooms to avoid stray gunfire. “They hit the deck when gunshots go off,” she said. “It’s really, really super-scary for those people.”

She also claimed that some local apartment complexes intended as “high-end” are home to “riffraff” who drive out other tenants with parties and marijuana use. She suggested subsidizing police officers to live in apartments. The local nonprofit Livable Buckhead, another signatory to the “Buckhead Security Plan,” has such a program that it has renewed touting in recent weeks, though takers appear to be few so far.

Heery echoed a widespread local sentiment that the Bottoms administration has shown a “leadership failure” in dealing with crime.

NPU B chair Nancy Bliwise, another leader involved in the “Buckhead Security Plan,” grilled alcohol-license applications from hotels, restaurants and bars about their hours and training due to concern about links between nightlife and crime. Among those responding was Brian Wander, general manager of the JW Marriott Atlanta Buckhead hotel on Lenox Road, which is finishing a $30 million renovation.

“Obviously, we’re concerned and saddened by some of the events lately,” but also “encouraged” by some responses, Wander told Bliwise. “The ‘Buckhead Security Plan,’ I think, is a step in the right direction.”

The commander on crime

Senzer put Buckhead crime into a citywide context rarely discussed — and sometimes openly rejected — by locals. He said Zone 2 indeed has seen increases in homicide and aggravated assaults, as well as cases of larceny from autos and auto theft. But while the percentages are up, the absolute numbers are lower than several other parts of the city, he said. Zone 2’s violent crime rate “certainly pales in comparison to the carnage that is occurring in some of the other zones,” he said.

Boosting police visibility is a major component of the “Buckhead Security Plan.” However, Senzer said that “what disturbs me the most” is that current high-visibility police presence is not stopping shootings in the neighborhood. During a Jan. 3 triple shooting outside a Pharr Road restaurant, Senzer said, there was a police officer at the door, another across the street, and two patrol cars nearby.

On the other hand, Senzer said that increasing the number of surveillance cameras — another part of the Buckhead plan — pays off. In that Jan. 3 shooting, Senzer said, investigators got video of a suspect and were able to identify the vehicle involved. He said APD is also interested in using video from private residents’ cameras, though some in attendance said APD rarely asks and there was brief discussion of legal and liability issues.

Durrett of the Coalition and CID said that cameras identified a suspect in the fatal shooting Dec. 21 of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie near Phipps Plaza mall, an incident that crystallized local crime concerns.

“They solved that using cameras and license-plate readers,” said Durrett. “So the technology works and we’re going to be putting more of it out here.”

Political issues

A political tension underlying the Buckhead plan is Bottoms’ rocky relationship with APD, which is said to be suffering morale and staffing problems, after a year of Black Lives Matter and police-reform protests. A key political moment was Bottoms’ response to the June 2020 police killing of Rayshard Brooks in Peoplestown, where charges against the officers triggered some police sick-outs in protest and involved a temporary tolerance of armed protesters near the shooting site. That tolerance ended with another shooting death of a child in a passing vehicle.

Asked about criticism of the Bottoms administration’s public-safety leadership, Senzer said, “This is where I try to practice my best stoicism. There are a lot of things that are outside of my control…” While avoiding any direct commentary, Senzer did address some topics of political significance in the debates.

On the reason why crime rates are rising Senzer echoed Bottoms’ previous statements where she said that nightclubs staying open during the pandemic attract out-of-town visitors who then cause crime. Bottoms blamed Gov. Brian Kemp, a political foe on public safety issues, for not shutting down businesses during the pandemic.

“First of all, Atlanta’s open,” Senzer said. “Our clubs are open for business. Our city is open for business.”

Senzer said that all APD precincts are short on staffing. “I’m happy when I have all of my beats filled,” he said — a bare minimum that means only 11 officers “patrolling a 32-square-mile piece of real estate.” Bottoms previously approved APD salary increases and her plan addresses staffing improvements, though Senzer said the citywide target number is “back from the [Bill] Campbell administration,” referring to a mayoral administration that ended in 2002 and does not reflect the city’s population growth.

As to the reasons for the short-staffing, Senzer cited officers’ concerns about the pandemic and about “anti-police sentiment and civil unrest.”

“Some people weren’t as resilient as others” and either left law enforcement altogether or chose to “move to maybe a department where they felt they were supported a little bit better,” Senzer said of the APD force.

The pandemic also has halted national travel by APD recruiters, Senzer said. “We’d love to go out West and start recruiting some of these disenfranchised officers from Seattle and Portland and bring them over here to Atlanta. Get some experienced officers on board,” he said.

Seattle and Portland, Oregon, have been the scenes of major controversies over violence by both police and protesters in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Both cities saw rioting, attacks on government buildings, and arrests carried out by unidentified federal law enforcement officers in a highly controversial move ordered by President Trump. In Seattle, protesters drove police out of a precinct and established a self-operating “autonomous zone” that the mayor tolerated for a few weeks until shootings led police to clear the area. In recent months, authorities have ruled that two Seattle officers used excessive force against protesters and that the police department was in contempt of a court order barring indiscriminate use of less-lethal weapons on crowds.

The day after the NPU B meeting, a Trump-supporting mob assaulted the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to halt the certification of Joe Biden as president, an attack that led to the deaths of several people, including a police officer. On Jan. 8, the Seattle Police Department announced that at least two of its officers were said to be present in Washington, D.C., during the attack and were on leave pending an investigation of any involvement in the violence.

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