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Buckhead officials seek police patrol program, citing street racing worries

By J.D. Capelouto – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ben Brasch – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

#atlanta-ga (CNT) City News And Talk

Many things could keep the chairman of the Fulton County Commission awake in the middle of the night. But three weekends ago, at about 1:30 a.m., a raucous crowd of people street racing on Peachtree Road startled Robb Pitts awake.

It prompted him and a group of other elected and community leaders to propose a new security program that would pay off-duty Atlanta police officers to conduct regular patrols around Buckhead, with a focus on the busy commercial areas.

“I got involved because I got impacted by it directly, it happened right outside of my window,” said Pitts, who recently moved to Buckhead.

While police data shows Buckhead has actually seen a decease in serious offenses over the last two years, a perceived rise in crimes like street racing and shootings at clubs have put many community leaders on edge.

“We are at war with crime and we need to act like it,” said Atlanta City Councilman J.P. Matzigkeit, whose district includes Buckhead. “The sense of lawlessness is at an all-time high.”

For years, Buckhead residents have raised concerns about crime in their neighborhoods. But the creation of a new security patrol could mark the most significant and formalized step toward additional police presence in an area home to Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods.

Pitts pitched the new program as “Buckhead Blue,” modeled after Midtown Blue in Buckhead’s commercial neighbor to the south. Midtown Blue, launched over a decade ago by the Midtown Alliance and the Midtown Improvement District, uses 40 off-duty Atlanta Police Department officers to patrol Midtown’s commercial corridors.

It’s still too early to say how the Buckhead program could be structured, or how it would be funded. A small working group of Buckhead’s power players that includes Pitts, Matzigkeit, and former city councilwoman Mary Norwood is expected to meet and could come to a decision over the next several weeks.

Buckhead’s communities already pay for a fair amount of their own security. Jim Durrett, who heads both the Buckhead Community Improvement District and the Buckhead Coalition, a private business group, said about 95% of Buckhead’s neighborhoods have private security or fund additional off-duty APD patrols. The CID also pays for one off-duty APD car to patrol the district. And of course, many businesses pay for their own security or surveillance cameras.

“The question is, do we need something more than the combination of all of those things?” said Durrett, who is generally supportive of the idea but wants to research the issue before jumping headfirst into a branded “Buckhead Blue” concept. “We don’t want to make a decision that a few weeks down the road we’re going to regret.”

Conversations over crime have bubbled up in Buckhead neighborhood circles for years. In 2016, homeowners worried about a rise in home invasions. Last year, residents reported an uptick in car thefts, burglaries and armed robberies, leading to a contentious town hall in which then-police Chief Erika Shields chided Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard for his office’s alleged inability to quickly prosecute those arrested.

Serious crimes, which range from theft to murder, have decreased 14% in Buckhead this year compared to 2019, and are down nearly 25% compared to 2018, according APD crime data for Zone 2, which includes Buckhead.

Aggravated assaults and car thefts are up compared to 2018 and 2019, the statistics show.

Community leaders said the looting that targeted some Buckhead businesses along Peachtree Road at the beginning of the summer, coupled with some recent shootings and a rise in street racing, has led Buckhead residents to lose their sense of security, especially around the commercial districts. While many who live near commercial areas are directly impacted by street racing and other offenses, local leaders say the perception of increased crime has put even more residents on edge during regular outings.

The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, chaired by Norwood, who narrowly lost the 2017 mayoral race, recently sent notices to city leaders urging them to take action on “street safety,” including stricter crackdowns of street racing.

Atlanta police recently announced it is ramping up its efforts to combat street racing, using barricades and increasing fines. On one recent weekend, police issued nearly 100 citations for street racing, while two vehicles were impounded.

But some residents say they’ve seen a drop in regular police patrols around Buckhead in recent months as more officers have left the force, Matzigkeit said. APD said more than 60 police officers left the force in July and August, following a series of protests sparked by police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.

Crime has become a countywide issue, Pitts pointed out. Atlanta has seen more than 100 homicides in 2020, surpassing its totalfor all of 2019. Six of those have been in Buckhead.

“It’s no secret that Atlanta Police Department is sort of stretched thin,” Pitts said, adding that the Buckhead Blue idea would not “replace or diminish the efforts of APD, but … supplement what APD is doing.”

This effort comes at a pivotal moment for law enforcement. After a summer filled with protests across metro Atlanta and the country, the call is growing for a different form of policing, one that recognizes how an over-reliance on police could disproportionately hurt Black residents.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced a series of police reform orders aimed at APD, and her administration hopes to repurpose the city jail to hold fewer non-violent offenders, arguing that minority populations are more heavily penalized for non-violent crimes.

“I am for reforming policing, but I think that right now we need to spend more money on policing,” Matzigkeit said. “Nobody in Buckhead thinks we need less police.”

Atlanta police commanders in Buckhead are aware of the neighbors’ concerns and “routinely adjust tactics and the deployment of officers and crime suppression teams to combat recurring problems,” department spokesman Sgt. Jarius Daugherty said in a statement.

“As it relates to the proposal of a Midtown Blue type of program, the Buckhead area has a number of off-duty Atlanta PD officers that work for private neighborhood patrols. We believe that a program that creates greater police presence in areas where officers are highly visible can positively impact crime and community.” Daugherty said.

“What we need is to have enough of a presence, however that is done, to thwart the illegality that is happening,” Norwood said, adding that her group will continue to discuss what the best solution would be. The reality on the streets, she said, is more meaningful than what the crime statistics might show. “People are not able to sleep, their children are not able to sleep. It is all over the area; it is not just Buckhead.”