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In Buckhead cityhood debate, how do we measure crime solutions?

A map of the proposed Buckhead City as shown on the website of the Buckhead City Committee, an advocacy group.

By John Ruch

When Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) this month agreed to freeze Buckhead cityhood legislation, he also set ticking a clock for new Mayor Andre Dickens to address the big issue motivating it. The “crime problem,” Ralston declared, is “not solved,” and Dickens would have a one-year crack at doing so.

But what crime, exactly? And how would solving it be measured?

Because by the standard measure police departments use, Buckhead continues to have – as it has throughout the cityhood debate – far lower crime rates than the rest of Atlanta. Yet polls show its residents continue to have a sky-high fear of crime – a phobia-level disproportion familiar to criminologists, a class of experts left out by all sides in this debate. With the objective and subjective so far apart, it would seem especially important to have a way to distinguish practical solutions from political distortions.

Ralston has no particular metric in mind. “As the Speaker said, ‘I’m looking for some forceful, vigorous action on the part of the city to tackle that problem,’” says Ralston spokesperson Kaleb McMichen. “This is not a prescriptive toward any one measure or metric. He is leaving it to the city leadership to determine what steps they feel appropriate to take before the 2023 session convenes.”

That is to say, we are likely to see more of the original research and political spin on crime that has characterized not just the cityhood debate, but other Buckhead activism before and since, including by some of today’s cityhood opponents. With no advocacy group tactically willing to question the degree and nature of crime fears, the temptation for political posturing is great, even if not all posturing is equal.

The Buckhead City Committee (BCC) continues to claim that nothing has changed and Buckhead’s lives and property are in “grave jeopardy” without its cityhood, but it’s now pointing to a year-over-year January uptick in the citywide homicide rate – a small data set whose statistical significance is hard to determine, particularly in Buckhead. The BCC has made unsubstantiated and disputed claims that cityhood would improve policing within the remainder of Atlanta as a side effect, but regardless, a new Buckhead City would not control that policing and other Atlanta citizens would not get a vote on cityhood under current legislation.

Dickens, meanwhile, gained glowing notice in media not familiar with Buckhead for “announcing” the “opening” of a new police mini-precinct there that in fact already had been announced by his predecessor and won’t be functional for months. However, the mini-precinct itself matches what criminologists say is the evidence-based crime-fighting strategy of targeting hot spots, like certain areas in Buckhead Village this one will serve.

A year ago, as the cityhood movement took off, I and my colleague Maggie Lee analyzed Buckhead’s crime data and discussed it with Georgia State University criminology professor Joshua Hinkle. Not much has changed since then, except the local and citywide crime rates trending downward.

In 2020, the weird pandemic year when Atlanta and the rest of the nation saw a spike in violent crime, Buckhead had lower numbers and percentages of violent crime than the rest of the city — that’s measuring by APD’s Zone 2 precinct, which roughly matches the neighborhood. The largest part of Buckhead’s crime spike by far was thefts from motor vehicles, which APD said often involved unlocked vehicles.

Our new analysis of crime rates in 2021, the year of the cityhood debate, shows a similar pattern. Buckhead’s numbers of key crimes like homicide, auto theft, robbery and burglary were far below citywide numbers.

Even the talk of “Buckhead” crime is itself a bit misleading. As Hinkle told me back then, crime is not evenly distributed around a neighborhood or city; it tends to be concentrated on certain blocks or even buildings due to problem owners, repeat offenders and the like. Focusing on these hyperlocal “hot spots” is a key strategy of modern policing. If you’re not living in a current hot spot, your crime risk is even lower than neighborhood-wide crime stats might suggest.

Despite the relatively low Buckhead crime rates, polls have consistently shown crime dominating local concerns to an extraordinary, double-digit degree: 66 percent in last year’s “State of Buckhead” poll; 65 percent in an early BCC poll; and 57 percent in a recent poll by the anti-cityhood group the Committee for a United Atlanta. (That latter poll showed crime concern, like cityhood itself, has a partisan difference – 66 percent of self-identified Republicans named crime versus 48 percent of self-identified Democrats.)

Such disconnect between crime fear and crime reality is common, as Hinkle previously told me. Residents of middle-class suburbs with lower crime rates tend to have higher crime fears than residents of disadvantaged areas with higher crime rates, he said. And the demographic most likely to be a victim of violent crime is young males, while older women are the most fearful of crime in general. These situations become more matters of psychology than policing – or at least of “community-based policing,” where officers connect with residents to improve a feeling of security.

Of course, statistics are no comfort to those who are crime victims, and they don’t touch the subjective horror of singular crimes that shake a sense of order. A sin of former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration was an aloof, no-show response to the sickening shooting death in 2020 of a 7-year-old girl riding in a car past the Phipps Plaza mall’s parking lot (in a crime hot-spot of the time).

A success of the BCC, on the other hand, is a highly subjective approach that has drawn political and media attention to some real, and really ignored, concerns as well as demonstrating public sympathy to specific crime victims whose stories might otherwise not have been told.

But subjectivity can take other paths, as when cityhood advocacy swirled down to sewer level with the BCC’s leader retweeting a racist post attributing urban crime to the existence of a Black population. That was a singular moment itself, but cityhood launched in a year when Buckhead was shocked by rioting and looting that followed Black Lives Matter protests about George Floyd’s police murder, and race and class remain factors in the debate. The BCC has particularly highlighted officers upset with Bottoms’ handling of local police killings and arrests in the wake of the protests as well as the victims of an alleged Black-on-white hate crime.

In Buckhead, crime debates tend to use an expansive definition where “crime” means everything from cars doing doughnuts in a parking lot to stranger-on-stranger murder. A “Buckhead Security Plan” produced in 2020 by current cityhood foes the Buckhead Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District was one of these, resulting in a kitchen-sink approach with a few corporate and political agendas and not many metrics. The latest effort is District 8 City Councilmember Mary Norwood going the blue-ribbon-panel route with a new “Buckhead Public Safety Task Force.”

One commonality in all these efforts is antipathy to including independent criminologists. I get the sense that organizers figure such academics are soft-on-crime hippies, which may or may not be true, and who would irritatingly not just confirm some biases and political agendas, which is definitely true. Indeed, I’ve found criminologists have interesting things to say about crime crackdowns, like how even if they’re successful, the tactic itself can actually increase the public’s fear of crime.

Without some kind of objective advice and metrics, we’re not just looking at another year of photo ops and circular arguments, but might be overlooking practical ideas like those that Buckhead’s Neighborhood Planning Unit B and Garden Hills Civic Association were discussing before all this started. Those included targeted crackdowns on unlicensed businesses and a specialty “gun court” to address a Fulton County backlog that cityhood wouldn’t change.

Likewise, the measure of “crime” should be at least as clear as the clock on a possible cityhood round two. Is it a success if Dickens reduces crime fears and not crime? Is it a failure if he reduces crime but not the fear? If we can’t tell the difference, it’d be a crime.

Data analysis and chart by Maggie Lee


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