How Atlanta police have kept BeltLine bad guys in check
About five years ago, when the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail first opened, John Wolfinger cringed every time he got a call or email about the new amenity because it almost always involved strong-arm robberies. As a community activist who established a Virginia-Highland Neighborhood Watch, Wolfinger hated hearing about people snatching purses and cellphones from BeltLine bicyclists, walkers, and joggers. What’s more, “there was a big problem when people would call 911 from the BeltLine as to ascertaining where the hell they were and which officers were going to answer the call,” Wolfinger recalls.
But nine months after the trail opened, Wolfinger says, the crime reports stopped. That’s when the Atlanta Police Department launched the Path Force Unit, a 15-officer bicycle team with a singular goal of keeping the BeltLine safe. “It really was amazing,” says Wolfinger. “They obviously scared the perps away.”
Which was the goal of Atlanta Police Lt. Jeff Baxter all along. In 2012 the 20-year department veteran toured urban trails and spoke with police in New York City, his native Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. The takeaway: Atlanta needed a bicycle unit that would eat, sleep, and breathe BeltLine and act as ambassadors for visitors and nearby neighborhoods.
Funded by a $1.8 million U.S. Department of Justice COPS grant received in 2012, the Path Force is headquartered in a Reynoldstown loft leased from the BeltLine for $1 per year. Every day, officers load bikes onto their cruisers and report to an assigned section of the Eastside, Westside, or Northside trails. They patrol from roughly 10 a.m. until 1 a.m., overlapping shifts during peak evening hours.
Results have been impressive. The Eastside Trail has become a regional destination and global tourist attraction, with 1.7 million visitors last year alone, yet the Path Force has received just 20 crime reports in four years. The bulk of those involved graffiti vandalism, lost items such as purses, and car break-ins near the trail. The only violent crimes—sporadic armed robberies—have happened late at night, after the trail has closed and usually while the victim was walking alone, Baxter says. More eyes on the path have helped, he adds.
This past summer Baxter applied for another $1.8 million COPS grant in hopes of doubling the force to 30 officers, specifically to better patrol the new Westside Trail. He expects to open a second precinct near Murphy Avenue, similar to the Reynoldstown arrangement. For added security, the Westside Trail features cameras and lighting. The BeltLine has also recently secured funding to retrofit the Eastside Trail with cameras and lighting, though exactly when isn’t clear.
“With the BeltLine fundamentally being safe, it allows it to grow and build and get bigger and better,” says Baxter. “Obviously we can’t take all the credit, but we do have a dedicated group out there every day, and we really do care about it.” —Josh Green