IN OUR TIMES

This is a long one… by Stephanie Ramage in Atl’s The Sunday Paper

City Hall, are you listening?

Grant Park, Ormewood Park, East Atlanta and Inman Park have a crime problem. And it’s not imaginary.

By Stephanie Ramage

It looks as though the tiny house with tarpaper showing through its walls and a roof grown shaggy with torn tiles has vomited up a flea market.

Furniture, old lamps, liquor bottles, potted plants and remnants of carpet take up nearly every available inch of space in the few feet packed between the street and the place where a black man named Lorenzo Beck blends in with everything else.

His presence is betrayed by the movement of his hand as he tinkers with something on the porch.

The yard, whatever it may look like, is his life’s work.

“I’m a collector,” he says as my intern and I gingerly step around some pots and across a few concrete blocks to introduce ourselves.

I explain that we’ve dropped in because there has been quite a bit of speculation lately regarding whether there is a crime problem in the city’s southeastern corner, a swath from Grant Park to East Atlanta, and if, perhaps, residents have overreacted to the slaying in January of bartender John Henderson at nearby bar and eatery the Standard.

Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington has insisted that residents are overreacting, and Mayor Shirley Franklin claims the city is safer than it has been in decades.

I’ve come to ask Beck what he thinks.

He says he has lived here in Grant Park for 40 years. He moved into this house with his family when he was a teenager, and crime has always been bad off-and-on. Some times are worse than others.

“But in the last two or three months, it has done got worse. I mean sho nuff worse,” he says, adding that a few weeks ago, only four blocks away, he was mugged and beaten up by three guys. He fiddles with the tire gage clipped to the pocket of his blue work shirt and shakes his head as he remembers it.

At the neatly renovated house next door, Scott MacFarland is just on his way out. He moved to Grant Park seven years ago, and he agrees with Beck that crime in the area goes in cycles.

“It’s usually worse in the summer,” he says. “I always feel like, right around August, ‘What’s going on here?’ Then school starts again and things calm down. You get comfortable, I guess, with the routine of it. And then something will happen like the shooting at the Standard.”

He squints up the street from under his baseball cap.

“That changed things,” he says. “He had given them the money, but they killed him anyway. You want to believe it’s the economy, but that was such a violent act, that’s not just poverty, that’s something else. It’s really disturbing.”

Not long ago, MacFarland’s own home fell prey to an attempted burglary.

“Lorenzo,” he says, motioning to Beck, “scared them off. Everyone I know here has had some kind of run-in with crime.”

According to the Atlanta Police Department’s figures, I remind him, violent crime across the city is down.

“The numbers don’t help you sleep better at night,” he says. “What matters is your own experience of it and knowing friends and neighbors who have experienced it and are talking about moving. The numbers don’t matter. Let’s say you have six people die in one year, and the next year only five die. You can say that’s an improvement, but you’ve still had five people die.”

He’s not frightened, he says, but his wife is afraid. They keep in touch during the day to be safe, but he doesn’t think that qualifies for what APD Chief Pennington has described as an out-of-proportion response to crime.

MacFarland says he believes that the neighborhood outcry is the result of having more empowered people in the area than was the case in the past—people who are less afraid of calling the police and who are more likely to go to the City Council to demand better public safety.

He and Beck pose for a photo and we talk about the APD’s shortage of about 400 officers. On a night when nobody calls in sick or is out for other reasons, there may be 10 or fewer officers patrolling any one of the city’s six zones.

Beck says that he doesn’t feel comfortable with the police.

Not long ago, when the kids at the school across the street were out for recess, their ball went over the fence and rolled down the hill. Beck had no sooner retrieved it and tossed it back over the fence, he says, than an APD cruiser pulled up and two officers began questioning him about the contents of a shopping bag on his premises. It was the bag, says Beck, where he keeps his shaving items.

“I couldn’t get my mind together to talk to them,” he says. “And if you do try to report something, they are so mean and nasty to you it’s like you’ve done something wrong.”

Beck didn’t report the beating he endured a few weeks ago to the police. And he’s not alone.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2007 National Crime Victimization Survey, which is based on interviews with victims, more than half of all violent crimes surveyed—including robbery, rape and aggravated assault—are not reported to police. So if there are a lot of police-wary residents like Beck in a given area, crime stats from the APD, the source used by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in its Feb. 8 story, “Though Atlanta Crime is Up, Violence Overstated,” would not give an accurate account of crime.

Also, as researchers have been pointing out for decades, police departments can classify crimes according to their own tastes or needs.

As early as 1974, in an article titled “Getting the Crime Rate Down: Political Pressure and Crime Reporting,” David Seidman at Princeton University and Michael Couzens at the University of California at Berkeley deduced that even small changes in police administrative procedures can produce big changes in crime rates. They also noted that police departments under political pressure to make a city look safer than it actually is have plenty of leeway to do so through classifying crime. The police decide what will be considered a crime and how the crime should be described—as a larceny or a robbery, for example.

“Sometimes,” writes Seidman and Couzens, “this description is reviewed at another point in the police hierarchy,” and changes are made accordingly.

A few doors down from MacFarland, Mike Fitzgerald is renovating his home. He has lived in Grant Park for 12 years and, unlike Beck, he feels more comfortable with the police around.

“They’ve reinstated the mounted patrols, I think,” he says. “And that helps. It makes you feel better to see them.”

He doesn’t think there’s been a rise in violent crime, but he’s heard about more carjackings.

“I think what’s got people on edge is the guns and the groups of perpetrators,” he says. “If you’ve got gangs with guns now, that’s a problem. The guy at the Standard, they didn’t have to kill him to get what they wanted. And they didn’t kill him just because they didn’t want any witnesses because, after all, they left the girl who was working with him alive. So, why did they kill him? You just have to think that the person who did it was some kind of weird animal.”

CRACK HOUSE WHACK-A-MOLE

The next day, I return to Grant Park, this time with Lou Arcangeli, a former deputy chief of police at the APD who teaches criminal justice at Georgia State University.

We schlep up the hill that curves away from Cherokee Avenue, to where a woman in a business-y skirt and blouse, her arms full, is unlocking the door of a house with thoroughly barred windows.

Her name is Malinda Teel, and she has lived here for 30 years. She’s never been a victim of crime, although she’s heard about neighbors whose cars have been broken into. She simply takes precautions.

“We’ve always had a dog, we don’t park on the street,” she says. “We don’t own a big-screen TV, but if we did it wouldn’t be shining out into the street. We’ve got really good locks on the doors. The backyard is fenced in. We go out every night and walk the dog and we do not feel afraid. There might be a spike in crime every now and then when somebody gets out of jail, but I am a little surprised about how vehement the reaction has been to the bartender being killed.”

As Arcangeli and I drive east on Glenwood Avenue to Ormewood Park, the frequency of For Sale signs increases. I turn down a side street where a young man with a shaved head is working on the edge of a driveway. A tattoo of the infinity symbol slithers on his white upper arm as he slowly swings a trimmer.

His name is Stephen Sheldon, and he and his wife have lived here for three years.
“There were three to four identified crack houses in the neighborhood,” he says, “and this kid who did a break-in here came from the one across the street. We got rid of that one.”

Arcangeli asks him how he managed that.

“We called the police. We called and called and called over and over again and we got it shut down,” he says. “Then, of course, the crack house just moved around the corner, but at least it’s not across the street anymore.”

Sheldon suspects that one reason for the persistent crack houses and the random crime around them is a lack of awareness. He notices things on the street, but not everyone does. “I hate to be an a**hole about it,” he says, “but some of the older people, really the middle-aged people, are just not paying attention.”

CRIME BY THE NUMBERS

A little further on, East Atlanta huddles around its small business district.

Like Grant Park and Ormewood Park, it is a chock-a-block area of economic diversity. Carefully restored bungalows share hedges with tenements that are little more than shacks. From 2007 to 2008, the area saw a 14 percent increase in violent crime, despite a decrease in much of the rest of the city.

I turn down McWilliams Street, and Arcangeli stays in the car to make a phone call as I knock on doors along a stretch of rundown houses.

As I step into one driveway, a group of guys on the porch shout a stream of profanity and threaten to kick my ass or shoot me if I come one step closer. I say I’m a reporter, but either they don’t hear me or they don’t care. It becomes apparent that they think I am a government worker of some sort because they yell “Get out the goddamn yard unless you goin’ bring me my f**kin’ $1,000 tax refund the gover’ment ’spose to be givin’ ever’body! Where’s my goddamn check, bitch? I want my f**kin’ money!”

I return to the car.

We drive a couple of blocks west, where a woman who looks to be in her 40s is out for a brisk walk. I wave and ask her if she feels safe here. She says yes. Then another woman, with a baby in a sling and a dog on a leash, approaches us and tells her, “We’re forming a neighborhood watch and I thought you might want to be a part of it.”

The woman, who introduces herself as Elaine Wright, replies that she does. The two women admit they only know each other by sight, though Wright’s lived here for six years. They exchange phone numbers and Wright explains to me that last fall, she and her neighbors managed to get a crack house shut down. She points to the house where it used to be.

“We called the cops over and over again,” she says. “My husband took pictures of all the traffic in and out and we finally got it shut down.”

Now the inhabitants of the crack house have moved to another house in the neighborhood, right up the street. It’s the same scenario presented by Ormewood Park’s Sheldon—a game of criminal justice Whack-a-Mole.

Arcangeli and I drive by the new location of the crack house. An elderly woman totters up the steps.

Arcangeli details a phenomenon familiar to criminologists called “cloaking.” In it, unemployed younger family members move in with a grandmother or grandfather who’s glad to have the company, but the young people then use the older relative’s home as a crack house. The legitimate flip side of this phenomenon, where young unemployed relatives move in with grandparents, can be a positive development, because it does provide greater safety for the elderly and gives the kids more stability. The only way to tell the difference is by watching the activity.

Traveling north on Moreland Avenue from East Atlanta, one soon enters the Little 5 Points/Inman Park area.

When the AJC published “Though Atlanta Crime is Up, Violence Overstated,” Inman Park resident John Hines focused on the tables of crime stats at the bottom of the article. In an e-mail written in reference to the article, he states that the APD stats as analyzed by the AJC seem to indicate “that violent crime is sharply up in Inman Park from an already bad year in 2007 although it is down for Atlanta citywide…”

In Inman Park, the “numbers show a 19 percent increase in violent crime…from 2007 to 2008, and a 30 percent increase from 2006 to 2008 … violent crime increased very sharply in the fourth quarter of 2008, from an average of 2.5 per month in the four preceding quarters to an average of 10 per month in Q4…” (East Lake/Kirkwood, from 2007 to 2008, experienced the biggest jump in violent crime of any neighborhood: 53 percent.)

The numbers are less important, though, than how Mayor Franklin and Chief Pennington respond to them.

According toTom R. Tyler, author of “Policing in Black and White: Ethnic Group Differences in Trust and Confidence in the Police,” an article published in Police Quarterly in 2005, the APD has an opportunity to help the community, whether it solves violent crimes like the slaying at the Standard or not.

“People get very upset when they feel that their concerns are not heard or are not being addressed, and that’s true whether they are white or African-American,” says Tyler, a professor of psychology at New York University. “One thing the police can do is make a big effort to share information with people. They might not be able to solve the case, but they can restore trust.”

And having confidence in the police department is important in determining more than merely the perception of crime, says Stephen Raudenbush, a sociologist at the University of Chicago who has researched neighborhoods and violent crime.

“Past evidence suggests that when neighbors distrust the police, crime will tend to thrive.” SP

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One thought on “IN OUR TIMES

  1. Katherine,

    I’m flattered you saw fit to include my news story here in the midst of this fine writing. Thank you. — Very best, Stephanie Ramage

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