The Atlanta Police Department’s announcement last week that cops would largely stop responding to shoplifting cases in Buckhead was a head-turner.
It’s like the fire department saying it will no longer respond to smoldering garbage cans or fetch cats from trees.
The once-popular “Broken Windows” strategy of policing even the small stuff seems to be, well, out the window.
But Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields’ call to do that seems like a calculated move to nudge the mayor and the City Council to get busy bumping up salaries and accelerate hiring to build up the force.
Cops in Zone 2, which is largely Buckhead, say they are wearing themselves out chasing the punks wreaking havoc on Atlanta’s north side.
Crime in the zone is up almost 20 percent this year when compared to last, with car thefts, larcenies from autos and street robberies driving that increase. (Crime is flat or down citywide except in downtown’s Zone 5, which also spiked 20 percent.)
Zone 2 commander Maj. Barry Shaw said it’s simply a case of not having enough bodies to chase down every bit of skulduggery.
“The shoplifting is killing me; when you’re this short it eats you up,” Shaw said “My officers are transporting shoplifters constantly. It takes them off their beat.”
Zone 2 is carved into 13 beats, with one car patrolling each beat and hopefully backed up by other units. Responding to such calls (maybe 10 a day) and then driving the sticky-fingered prisoner to jail takes a cop out of the mix for an hour, sometimes two if traffic is bad. And when is it not?
It’s not the mom-and-pop places taxing resources, Shaw says. It’s the big-box stores and the malls, businesses that have store security and detain shoplifters. The city wants them to hire some off-duty cops.
Lt. Stephen Zygaj, who drives the streets of Zone 2 on the Crime Suppression Unit, told me, “At Walmart they want everyone to go to jail for a pair of socks. We don’t have time for that. We are working our butts off.”
Why is this so?
At 44 square miles, Zone 2 is the city’s largest and most populous. As of March 4, the latest figures available, the zone had 1,217 “Part 1” crimes committed. Downtown’s Zone 5 was second with 820. The rest of the zones fall off from there. Most of the others have more shootings and aggravated assaults than Zone 2.
But the constancy of crime is numbing.
“People don’t realize what goes through Zone 2,” said Zygaj, APD’s union leader. “Thirty-six million people go through Phipps (Plaza) and Lenox (Square) last year. There’s 11,500 parking spots. That’s a city in itself within a two-block radius.”
“There’s 174,320 people in the zone,” said Zygaj, who seems to like numbers. “Compare that to 472,000 in all Atlanta.”
Buckhead, with its large daily influx of workers, high-end malls, nightlife, and apartments and neighborhoods filled with well-heeled residents is like a well-stocked trout pond for ne’er-do-wells.
“Everyone comes to this area to commit crimes,” said Zygaj. “Who from Zone 2 goes to Zone 1 or Zone 4 to commit a crime?
“It’s easy pickings up here. People are lax. They think their life is grand. There’s a lot of crime that occurs because of stupidity,” he said. “You should not leave your gun or your laptop in your car. You should not leave your car running.”
Thieves recently made off with $2,000 in cash from a car break-in, which is a great incentive to keep at it.
City Councilman Howard Shook, who represents much of Buckhead, said two pistols and an AR-15 were stolen a month ago from a vehicle.
“I’d like to put that person in jail,” he said, referring to the vehicle owner. “Buckhead arms South Atlanta.”
Shaw said Zone 2 is beset with young gang members called DFW, short for Down For Whatever, a name which aptly describes these young, adaptable and opportunistic hoodlums.
“That’s the game with these guys,” he said. “They’re very bold. They don’t have a fear of getting arrested.”
A few years ago, they were doing smash-and-grabs at stores and restaurants, making off with flat-screen TVs and merchandise.
“Today they don’t have to break into a store and take that risk,” Shaw said. “When you’re riding three or four deep in a car, you can do what you want — jump out and rob someone, steal a car, break into cars.”
Remember, they’re Down For Whatever.
“They come rolling in,” said Shaw. “They’re going to hit you. You don’t know where. We’re target rich. Then they go home. It literally feels like they work in shifts.”
Robberies occur around the clock. One evening, state Rep. Sharon Cooper was filling her Mercedes with gas when it started rolling away with a stranger behind the wheel. One night after midnight, a man going to CVS for baby wipes was pistol-whipped.
And earlier this month before work, Michelle Tyde was getting into her car in a parking deck after a workout and suddenly had a gun in her face. Soon, her 2017 Range Rover was driven away without her.
“This was not the first time they did this,” she said. “They were very calm, very calculated.”
Tyde’s vehicle, and a young man driving it, were found a day later in Southwest Atlanta. She doesn’t know whether they caught the gunman.
Tyde is not sure that backing off on shoplifting calls is the way to go. “Maybe you’re encouraging more shoplifting,” she said. “I’m of the opinion that things escalate.”
Councilman Shook approves of the Atlanta Police Department’s decision, although he’s hearing some grumbling from residents: “If we let this go, then other stuff will happen.”
A person on a neighborhood online site called it “discrimination” against Buckhead. “Can you imagine if any services were taken away?” he asked.
Another noted that Zone 2’s cops are still giving tickets, which are up 26 percent since last year. Police argue that traffic stops are a tactic to control crime.
Lt. Zygaj likes the chief’s decision to go public on this one. The goal of attaining 2,000 officers was reached under the past administration (for maybe a minute) and then steadily dropped. Currently, the department says there are 1,747 cops, including 54 at the academy. Zygaj said the total includes about 50 retired cops who work. He thinks the city’s number still sounds high.
“But it’s come to a head,” he said. “They finally realized they have to deal with it. You can’t hide it no more.”