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As rising violent crime turns Atlanta into a ‘warzone,’ residents disagree on a solution

Even as some types of crime fell, murders and other violent crimes rose sharply in cities across the country last year — a trend that’s continued this year. The causes aren’t well understood, and there are strong disagreements about how to solve the issue, and what role police forces play. Amna Nawaz reports on how the debate over combating violence is playing out in Atlanta.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as some types of crime fell last year, murders and other violent crimes rose sharply in cities across the country, a trend that's continued this year.

    The causes aren't well-understood, and there are strong disagreements about how to address the problem.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, this debate over how to tackle violence is playing out in Atlanta.

  • Vanessa Cox-Logan:

    She was shot seven times in her back, and then they flipped her over, and they shot her one time in her head.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In the early hours of May 17, at this Northwest Atlanta apartment complex, 27-year-old Alicia Merrell was shot and killed.

  • Vanessa Cox-Logan:

    Right in this spot where the sand is, right over here.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Her aunt, Vanessa Cox-Logan, said she had been throwing out trash at this dumpster while helping a friend to move.

  • Sonya Merrell:

    It's the worst feeling of my life, and I could never get that back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alicia's mom, Sonya Merrell, remembers the phone call with the news her daughter had been killed.

  • Sonya Merrell:

    I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe it. One of my child is gone. She was the first of six of my kids, and she grew me up. She taught me how to be a mom.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Alicia was one of six people shot and killed in Atlanta that weekend alone.

  • Woman:

    Crime across the metro is on the top of mind.

  • Woman:

    Crime in Atlanta.

  • Woman:

    Another violent weekend in Atlanta.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Part of a spike in violent crimes the city's seen since 2019, with aggravated assaults up 20 percent and murders up 52 percent.

  • Patrick Sharkey:

    From a year-to-year perspective, it was a historic surge in violence last year.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Princeton Professor Patrick Sharkey, who tracks violent crime in American cities, says Atlanta's not alone.

    In Saint Louis last year, murders increased by 35 percent, by 18 percent in San Jose, in Austin, 42 percent, Detroit, 19 percent, and New York City saw an increase of 45 percent.

  • Patrick Sharkey:

    So, you had the pandemic and all the suffering and the abandonment of communities that went into that. Then you had this proliferation of guns. It creates the potential for more altercations to become lethal, for more fights to become shootings.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Historically, crime in American cities rose sharply between the 1960s and '80s, then fell from the '90s through 2014, when numbers again began to climb.

    The 2020 surge, Sharkey says, was notable, and calls for racial justice and police reform, he believes, also played a role.

  • Patrick Sharkey:

    Police may decide not to get involved in an incident where they have some discretion of whether to respond or not. Residents may also decide to check out and no longer call the police.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In Atlanta, the June 2020 police shooting of Rayshard Brooks, a Black man confronted while he slept in a parking lot, sparked weeks of protest.

    Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms criticized the use of deadly force. The police chief resigned. And after two officers were charged following Brooks' death, more than 150 other officers called out sick. Dozens have since resigned. Today, Atlanta's police department is hundreds of officers short.

  • Columbus Ward:

    I don't really think the police is the answer.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Columbus Ward has lived in the South Atlanta neighborhood of Peoplestown his whole life. This majority Black neighborhood has seen some of the city's worst violence.

  • Columbus Ward:

    Rayshard Brooks got killed right in our neighborhood by police, so that who do you trust? How many people want to trust the police?

  • Ethel Floyd:

    It's like a war zone.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ethel Floyd has lived here for 57 years.

  • Ethel Floyd:

    It's a well-known fact about the police. They only come after the fact. Bringing in more police officers is not going to help. It's only to going to add fuel to the fire.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Resident after resident here tell us they're wary of an increased police presence. But some of their neighbors in North Atlanta disagree.

    This northern suburb known as Buckhead was annexed by Atlanta in the 1950s. And here, too, they have seen an increase in crime recently, which is why some residents in this wealthy and mostly white neighborhood now say the solution is to break away.

  • Bill White:

    We feel we're living in a war zone in Buckhead.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Bill White is leading the effort to create a separate city of Buckhead, allowing them to use their own tax base to fund their own budget.

    White says their city would lobby to tighten bail and sentencing rules and deploy its own independent police force.

  • Bill White:

    A massive police presence will be something that the new Buckhead City Police Department will absolutely provide.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Buckhead's departure would take away significant resources from Atlanta. By some estimates, this area comprises 40 percent of Atlanta's property wealth, a large part of its tax base.

    Critics say that would hurt the city's ability to stem rising crime and inequality.

  • Bill White:

    I think what Buckhead City will do will most certainly push the criminals away from Buckhead, and everybody in Buckhead loves that idea.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    How does taking those resources away help the rest of the city?

  • Bill White:

    Well, Atlanta has done this to themselves. We're not taking anything away from them. They have done this to themselves.

  • Eliana Kovitch:

    It doesn't really kind of resonate with you until you go through something yourself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Buckhead resident Eliana Kovitch backs the effort to break away, after she and her boyfriend, Jason Eades, were brutally assaulted in a parking lot last June.

  • Eliana Kovitch:

    The, like, sheer terror of having someone put a knife in your face and tell you profanity, and say to get on your knees and beg for your life, punch you and until you're unconscious, like, I didn't ask for that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you think it would take for you to feel safe right now?

  • Eliana Kovitch:

    Definitely more of a police presence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More police on the streets, Sharkey says, would reduce crime in the short term, but without addressing underlying issues, wouldn't stop cycles of crime over the long term.

    It also carries additional costs, he says, in the form of police violence, mass incarceration, and intensive surveillance, disproportionately impacting communities of color.

  • Patrick Sharkey:

    We should be pushing police to do their job differently, to build trust and legitimacy. But we should also be investing in a different set of community institutions and organizations and ask them to play a larger role in contributing to safe, stronger neighborhoods.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You don't see it as an either/or; this is a both/and?

  • Patrick Sharkey:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. We have never made a different commitment, focused on investing in communities, as the response to violence and all of the challenges that come with extreme inequality.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But in Peoplestown, they have made that investment in recent years and are starting to see a return.

  • Aaron Johnson:

    We have seen a decrease in violence through community collaboration, partnerships, and referrals, and not increased policing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Aaron Johnson is a trauma responder for local nonprofit CHRIS 180.

    Since 2018, his program has partnered with others to step up early intervention here, including wellness programs like this, all with a goal of stopping violence before it happens, efforts like yoga and mindfulness to help cope with trauma, training younger residents how to de-escalate conflicts, even food and mask distribution during the pandemic.

    While crime spiked across Atlanta last year, this area has seen a 50 percent decrease.

  • Aaron Johnson:

    And I believe that violence stems from the lack of equitable resources, the ability to attain these resources, whether it be financial resources, whether it be educational resources.

    So, when the trauma response network comes in, and other agencies come into communities to combat said violence, it's about bringing resources to communities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More than two months later, Alicia Merrell's murder remains unsolved. No arrests have been made.

    And while Vanessa Cox-Logan isn't opposed to more police help, her family and her community, she says, need more than that.

    What do you think it would take to make you feel safe right now?

  • Vanessa Cox-Logan:

    We need these cameras to be working. We need adequate wraparound services. I think that's what it's going to take. It's going to take — it really will take the entire village.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Outgoing Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently announced plans to hire 250 additional police officers, as well as expand investment in community groups.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Atlanta.

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