Crime was the main topic of discussion at an Oct. 24 town hall in Buckhead, where less than a year ago Atlanta staved off a Republican-backed movement seeking to have the North Atlanta community secede from the city.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens along with Interim Police Chief Darin Schierbaum and Chief Operating Officer Lisa Gordon faced a standing-room-crowd of hundreds at Peachtree Road United Methodist Church to tackle questions about Atlanta Medical Center, MARTA, the Atlanta BeltLine, pedestrian and wheelchair accessible infrastructure, and even pickle ball.
But the majority of the nearly 2-hour town hall concentrated on questions about crime. A spike in crime occurred across Atlanta at the onset of the pandemic in 2020. Black Lives Matters marches calling for the end of police brutality stretched from Downtown to Buckhead, where some protesters looted businesses in the wealthy business district. Crime became the catalyst for a well-funded Buckhead cityhood movement.
Schierbaum said at the town hall that violent and property crimes are down 11% in zone 2, which includes Buckhead. Zone 2 is the only one of the Atlanta Police Department’s six zones that has seen such a dip in crime from last year, he said. Other statistics from zone 2 compared to this time last year: aggravated assaults are down 10%; robberies are down 6%; and car break-ins are down 14%.
The mayor said programs including the city’s Nightlife Division and Office of Violence Reduction are helping slow crimes such as shootings and aggravated assaults that spiked during the Covid 19 pandemic. More than 10,000 surveillance cameras posted throughout the city plus a new police precinct in Buckhead Village are also key to preventing crime and arresting suspects, he said.
Shootings at Lenox Square made headlines several times in the past two years, but over the past 10 months there have no incidents of shootings or violent crimes at Lenox or Phipps Plaza, Dickens said. Zero incidents is remarkable, he said, because more than 1 million people visit the malls every month.
There have been eight homicides in Buckhead this year compared to 12 at this time last year. The latest homicide occurred this month on Peachtree Battle Avenue.
“I understand that you’re saying crime in Buckhead is down,” one woman said during the Q&A portion of the town hall.
“Well, it doesn’t feel like crime in Buckhead is down. In fact, Buckhead is not safe,” she said to loud applause.
She said she wondered if Dickens’ vote as a council member to “defund the police” meant he could not attract officers to come work for the city. Dickens voted in 2020 to support an ordinance to withhold $73 million of the police department’s $217 million budget until then-mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms came up with a plan to reimagine police culture. The ordinance failed.
The legislation was proposed in the wake of mass demonstrations in Atlanta and across the country protesting the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Weeks after Floyd’s death, Rayshard Brooks was killed by Garrett Rolfe, a white Atlanta Police officer, sparking more protests.
Susan Kreuer, vice president of the Paces Civic Association, told the mayor at the town hall a friend’s elderly parents live near where the Peachtree Battle killing occurred.
“They are afraid at the moment,” Kreuer said. “Perception is reality. If people don’t feel safe, it doesn’t make Atlanta a happy place to live.”
Another Peachtree Battle resident said he appreciated that statistically, crime is down in Buckhead, but that doesn’t erase the spike in crime that hit the wealthy community over the past couple years.
“Where are we at with hiring more police officers?” he asked, to a round of applause.
Schierbaum said APD has 1,500 sworn members and another 140 are in training. The department is authorized to have 2,035 officers. He said recruitment efforts are picking up with the $4,000 retention bonus approved by the mayor for those who stay with the department for at least 18 months.
He also said APD’s public safety training facility, set to be built on 85 acres in DeKalb County, will also contribute to lowering crime rates. The APD will soon be implementing a program to allow officers to take patrol cars home, another incentive, he said.
Dickens addressed the “perception is reality” comment directly.
“I know that perception sometimes is reality, but reality is also reality,” he said.
“So when I say the crime in Buckhead is down, I have to say that, I have to give you the numbers, that is the reality,” he said. “Perception is perception, but reality is a reality.”