With Buckhead crime on the rise, it seems just about everyone in the neighborhood has crime-fighting ideas, from the kitchen-sink approach of the new “Buckhead Security Plan” developed by local organizations to a nonprofit’s call for separate cityhood.

But discussion goes astray, says one criminologist, with some classic misperceptions, including crime fear that outpaces crime reality, and the notion that crime is a neighborhood-wide phenomenon rather than hyperlocal to specific blocks or buildings. And while many residents are demanding crime-fighting action from officials — including at a Jan. 4 City Hall protest — statistics show that many of them are ignoring the Atlanta Police Department’s pleas to help stop the easily preventable crime of car break-ins, by far the most common offense and one that sucks resources away from other police work.

“Put simply, there’s a disconnect between where crime is occurring and the demographics most likely to be victimized, and the areas and demographic who have the highest levels of fear,” says Joshua Hinkle, a Georgia State University criminologist who specializes in evidence-based policing and fear of crime. While the crime rate has risen in Buckhead, he said, “crime and risk of victimization there are still way lower than in, say, the south part of the city where the real crime hot spots are concentrated in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

Research shows that middle-class suburbs tend to have higher crime fears than disadvantaged areas with higher crime rates, and vice versa, Hinkle said. And older women are the demographic most fearful of crime, while young males are the most likely to be victims of violent crime.

With crime fear and crime reality existing somewhat separately, police work can be a victim of its own success. “In some studies, including one of my own, it’s found that police crackdowns may increase fear even if crime [or] disorder was successfully reduced,” Hinkle said.

Maj. Andrew Senzer, the commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 police precinct, has said in community meetings that local crime rates are rising in key violent and property categories, but well below other areas of the city.

A review of the APD’s annual report for 2020 on the most common or serious incidents bears that out. The report is based on a standard list of charges long used for national crime reporting: larceny, auto thefts, burglary, aggravated assault, robbery, homicide and manslaughter. The 2020 stats show Zone 2 lower in numbers and percentages than the rest of the city in all violent crime categories.

Squelching crime means understanding its causes, and that’s not easy on the current violent-crime wave. Buckhead and Atlanta are not alone in seeing a huge spike in shootings and killings, as cities nationwide are dealing with the same issues.

“Pandemic, Social Unrest and Crime in U.S. Cities,” a report on 2020’s national crime rates produced by the Washington, D.C. think tank the Council on Criminal Justice, said the extraordinary year had some obvious effects, like burglary rates falling due to people staying home. Less clear is why homicides, aggravated assaults and gun assaults began increasing dramatically over 2019 numbers in late May. The timing coincides with the start of racial justice protests over the police killing of George Floyd, but criminologists in the report say it’s too soon to tell whether there is any connection.

In Buckhead, discussion of crime often uses the term very broadly to mean everything from high-profile murder to illicit water-selling, and as something that occurs throughout the large neighborhood. But crime doesn’t work that way.

“Crime problems, even in high-crime neighborhoods, tend to be very localized,” says Hinkle, “and what works on one block may not be applicable to the root causes of crime on another block in the same part of the city.”

While residents often call for higher police visibility everywhere, the crime is in those “hot spots,” as the hyperlocalized crime sites are known. “There’s a very strong evidence base that hot-spots policing is more effective than purely random patrol,” said Hinkle. Cooling off a hot spot often does not involve police at all, but rather some other strategy, he said.

Those strategies are at work in Zone 2. Senzer told the Buckhead Community Improvement District board on Jan. 27 that his officers are focused on two hot spots: the 2300 block of Peachtree Road and the Pharr Road corridor in Buckhead Village. And one of the tactics is bureaucratic, as city officials and investigators are checking on possible mis-licensed late-night businesses that they believe are among the root causes of violent crime.

But most crime is not violent. “What’s really driving crime in Zone 2 is auto crimes…,” Senzer told the Buckhead CID. The APD stats show that auto theft and larceny from vehicles comprised around 63% of all Zone 2 crimes reported in 2020. That drives officers crazy because taking a theft report can burn a couple of hours and the crime is often easily preventable — most of the thefts involve unlocked vehicles with valuables inside, APD says.

“During an eight-hour shift, depending on where you’re at, the day of the week, time of the year, all those kinds of things, you can easily take four or five reports like that in a day and it will take up your whole day,” said Officer Steve Avery, an APD spokesperson.

The “Buckhead Security Plan” gained national press attention for proposing expanded and coordinated security patrols. Unmentioned was its boosting of APD’s “Clean Car Campaign” begging residents to stop making auto crimes so easy.

Hinkle had a mixed view of the “Buckhead Security Plan.” The parts focused on hot-spot policing and crime-solving cameras look promising, he said, while “zero-tolerance” language refers to a crackdown style with a track record that is mixed on crime-fighting but clear on race and class bias, he said.

Based on current research, Hinkle said, “the most promising police strategy would be one that applied problem-solving strategies to identify and target root causes of crime problems in long-term hot spots, coupled with community policing to help reduce fear and improve police-community relationships and collaboration.”

–John Ruch with reporting and data analysis by Maggie Lee

John Ruch

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