Police chief links homicides to drugs
By BILL TORPY
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/05/07
Murders in the city of Atlanta jumped in 2006, up 22 percent from the previous year, according to statistics released Monday by the FBI.
There were 110 homicides last year, compared to 90 in 2005. Violent crime, pushed by an increase in aggravated assaults, was up 4.6 percent. Property crimes, spurred by a jump in burglaries, were up 2.6 percent.
Atlanta murder spike
110 Murders in 2006
90 Murders in 2005
22 Percent increase in murders
4.6 Percent increase in violent crime
2.6 Percent increase in property crimes, led by burglaries
The increase left people in law enforcement wondering whether the numbers are a one-year aberration or the start of a trend showing a rising level of crime.
"My hunch is, with the decline in crime that we saw the last few years ... we're seeing a change," said Robbie Friedmann, a criminal science professor at Georgia State University. Data from "the last couple years shows an end to the 10-year decline we've seen."
The professor said decreased crime rates in previous years were due to improved economic conditions, the elimination of several public housing apartments and tougher state laws that locked up career criminals.
But more of those criminals are being paroled and there is a "bulge" in the population of juveniles and young adults, an age range where criminals are likely to be, said Friedmann.
Despite the increase, the number of murders in the city is the second lowest in a decade.
Last fall, Police Chief Richard Pennington, at the city's annual "Crime is Toast" breakfast, boasted that Atlanta's major crimes had fallen to the lowest levels since 1969. But two months later, his department was rocked by the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman in a drug raid gone bad, and a scandal ensued when it was learned that officers had lied to get warrants to enter the home.
The scandal has little to do with the crime statistics, but it led to a shake-up in the department, causing the chief last month to sweep clean the narcotics unit and make dozens of changes throughout the department. He said the moves are being made to regain public trust.
"We know that illegal drugs are somehow related to a large percentage of murders in our city. Working with our federal and state partners in law enforcement we must continue our fight against illegal drugs in Atlanta," Pennington said Monday in a prepared statement. "Just as important as the police aspect of enforcement, it is imperative we work in partnership with the justice system to help keep those involved in the drug trade off our streets."
The chief noted that other U.S. cities are seeing increases in crime and pointed out that incidents of rapes were down dramatically in Atlanta last year. The FBI report said 171 forcible rapes were reported in 2006, down from 223 in 2005.
Accounting for Atlanta's population increase, violent crime remained relatively stable, with 16 violent crime incidents per 1,000 people in 2006 compared to 15 the year before.
Linda Adams, a resident of the Vine City neighborhood just west of downtown, is chairwoman of her neighborhood's public safety committee and sees monthly police reports. She said crime is trending up this year.
"The crime is not getting any better," said Adams, the director of a summer camp for youths. "There were some young adults jumping on elderly women."
Adams is right. A check of the city's crime statistics as of mid-May shows that murder, rape, robbery and burglary are up, while aggravated assault and larceny from automobiles is down.
She said the community and the police both need to step up. "We need more visibility of police officers and we need to get the public's confidence back in the police force," Adams said. "It all starts with us, we have to not allow this to happen in our neighborhood. We have to report crime to the police."
Atlanta police Sgt. Scott Kreher, who heads the department's union, also said that preliminary figures show crime is up this year, so far, over 2006.
He agrees with Adams, saying more officers need to be on the beat. He said the department recently announced that there are 1,700 officers, but he said about 100 are "in the [training] pipeline," 150 work at the airport and another 150 work administrative jobs, leaving only about 1,300 on the street. For years, Atlanta's mayors have often stated a goal of having 2,000 officers.
Retaining trained officers is also a problem, Kreher said. Last month, Pennington said about two-thirds of the force had less than five years' experience.
Murder rates were largely unchanged in the other three Georgia cities in the FBI report. Athens-Clarke County reported five murders in 2006, the same as in 2005. Columbus remained flat at 22 murders. In the Savannah-Chatham area, one fewer murder, 29, was reported in 2006 than in 2005.
Nationwide, violent crime in the United States increased 1.3 percent and property crime decreased 2.9 percent over 2005, according to data from the FBI's Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report for 2006.
The statistics were collected from more than 11,700 law enforcement agencies and show a rise in violent crime nationally for the second straight year. The FBI releases a more detailed report in September of each year.
Data analyst Megan Clarke contributed to this article.