Atlanta magazine
May 2009
Rundown: Thomas Lake serves fresh intelligence on current issues

Are Atlanta's streets really becoming more dangerous?

Crime is a force of nature, not unlike tornadoes or earthquakes: unacceptable but also unavoidable. It returned to the city’s agenda January 7, when John Henderson, an employee of Standard Food & Spirits on Memorial Drive, was shot to death in a robbery. Candles burned; Facebook users mobilized. More than 6,000 people joined Atlantans Together Against Crime & Cutbacks, a group founded on the notion that “the wave of violent crime is paralyzing our city.”

Then, in a February 12 op-ed piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mayor Shirley Franklin responded with this claim: “The city is safer now than it has been in decades.”

Who’s right? Let’s go back in time and find out.

First to 1973, when things were truly horrible. How horrible? Atlanta had 263 homicides and was known as the nation’s Murder Capital. True, the FBI says it’s unfair to rank cities by violence levels, because each place has unique circumstances, but in Atlanta records going back to 1957, the 263 murders are the most for any year.

In 1979, things were still horrible. Not quite as many murders as 1973—this time it was 231—but the infamous Atlanta Child Murders, which would eventually claim twenty-nine young black victims, had begun. Later, TruTV noted the racial tension other murders caused: “On June 28, 1979, a young white doctor attending one of the city’s conventions was murdered by two black robbers. Then on October 17, 1979, a mentally unstable black man gunned down a white legal secretary on her birthday. Everyone was outraged, and the media demanded a crackdown on crime.” That summer, the Washington Post described four killings from the same Friday night: “a woman shot to death during a fight with her husband in a bar; a man blasted with a shotgun in an apparent robbery at a liquor store parking lot; a man shotgunned in the face outside his house after he moved trash bags someone placed in his driveway; and a man stabbed to death in his housing project.” Surprise. Atlanta was again named Murder Capital.

Then to 1989, when they were worst of all. Even as its population fell toward 400,000, Atlanta led the nation in overall crime rate. Total reported crime and violent crime both reached the highest levels in the fifty-two years of data I examined.

Now the good news. Between 1989 and 2005, crime fell by an astonishing 57 percent, to its lowest level in almost forty years. Any number of people could take credit for this, but Atlanta was not unusual: Crime plummeted across the nation during these years.

And then the tide turned again. Reported crimes rose in 2006, ’07, and ’08—a total of 20 percent, despite the mayor’s claim. Yes, population increased during that time, but not by 20 percent. And though January ’09 crime was slightly lower than January ’08, Georgia State University criminology professor Volkan Topalli says rising unemployment along with budget cuts for neighborhood watches and after-school programs will increase it further. “It’s going to go up in the poorest neighborhoods fastest, first,” he says.

In a way, Mayor Franklin and the good townsfolk Together Against Crime are both right. Yes, we’re safer than we were. And yes, it’s getting more dangerous.

There’s an old saying in journalism: It’s not news until it happens to you (or to your editor). John Henderson was a popular white man in a gentrifying neighborhood. As of March 23, the reward for helping solve his murder had grown to $50,000, the largest in Crime Stoppers Atlanta history.

Less than five miles east, on the same road, on September 27, 2008, someone killed a black man named Marque Davenport. There was little uproar. A search of the Nexis and AJC databases revealed no news coverage of his death. In February, the Atlanta Police Department appealed to the public for help with the case.

“At this time,” the advisory said, “all leads have been exhausted.”

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