A strategic primer on Atlanta's crime problem

The initial briefing document from Atlanta's anticrime working group paints a much more detailed picture of crime in the city than we get on TV. But it also shows the limitations of immediate action.

The working group convened by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms three weeks ago has a mandate to reduce violent crime immediately. It is not about looking at deep causes and long-term solutions, or about nonviolent offenses like burglaries or cybercrime, or broad criminal justice reform issues. It is about making recommendations that the city can act on right now, without a lot of legislation or investment.

I caterwauled about transparency when Atlanta’s powers-that-be made their crime working group a closed session. I was incorrect on the legal merits of my argument, if not the civic virtue of it. I now have some of the briefing materials from the first session in hand now, and as I’m looking at them, a few things leap out at me.

According to this document, so far, not a single homicide victim this year in Atlanta is white.

Four were Asian: presumably the victims of the spa shootings. Two are Latino/a. The rest — all 42 of them — are Black. The gun victimization rate is equally stark. Six white gunshot victims. Two Latino/a victims. All the other 224 people shot in Atlanta this year are Black.

White people and Black people are living in two entirely different worlds in Atlanta, which speaks to the stark racial divide in income and opportunity here. In 2018, the average household income of a white family was over $80,000 and the average household income for a Black family was under $30,000. One assumes that got worse during the pandemic.

Take heed: Atlanta has about 250,000 Black residents. Drawing broad conclusions about Black people because fewer than 1 percent have engaged in some kind of violent crime is an excellent definition of racism.

Once more for the people in the back: Black people aren’t shooting other Black people because of some natural propensity for violence. Poor people with little access to mental health care or economic opportunities shoot people when they’re backed into a corner, regardless of race. We have impoverished Black people, and this is the result.

About two-thirds of the shooting victims in Atlanta live in Atlanta. I’d like to know how many of the other third live near the city and how many are visitors. In a third of these shootings, the victim and suspect know one another. I’d also like to know how many of the suspected gunmen (and gun-women) are local, of course, but overall this suggests that the violence is homegrown.

Also worth noting: there’s no top line discussion about gang activity.

On August 13 last year, Atlanta’s interim police chief Rodney Bryant issued a Gang Data Reporting memo requiring police to track gang activity when it is evident at the scene of a crime. “If a gang-related crime appears to have been committed, the reporting officer will check the appropriate box on the incident report and include in the narrative any facts which tend to indicate gang-related activity.”

I have the initial incident reports for all of Atlanta’s homicides from 2020 until April this year. They are sparely annotated most of the time, as is perfectly normal with an initial incident report. None I’ve seen discuss gang activity explicitly and none have a gang checkbox. I’ve asked if that’s on supplementary incident reports — which I don’t get to read while an investigation continues.

I bring this up because state officials have been trying to tie much of the violent crime increase to gang activity. APD command plainly believed it was substantial enough to warrant a policy change last year … but none of that urgency appears in the initial data offered to the working group. I note that members of the group have told me they asked for more information about gang activity.

The bullet points:

Four juveniles have been arrested on homicide charges this year, representing about one in 12 murders.

The APD weekly crime report stopped reporting the 365 day change in the homicide figures a few weeks ago. I have to wonder if its because it is … unflattering. The total count of homicides in Atlanta this year as of the May 29 report is 57, nine more in sixteen days. It is a 365-day count of 179, compared to 95 in the previous period: a year-over-year increase of about 88 percent.

That 88 percent figure will presumably fall as the summer homicide spike of 2020 starts to flatten the numbers. But we’re still running high.