Amid spike in crime, a question of who owns the streets

Why We Wrote This

Atlanta and several other U.S. cities are seeing a spike in violent crime as police activity declines. In communities where trust in police has collapsed, how is public safety maintained?

Brynn Anderson/AP
Rodney Bryant was appointed Atlanta's interim police chief following the resignation of Chief Erika Shields, who stepped down after an officer fatally shot Rayshard Brooks June 12, 2020. Amid the upheaval, as many as 50 Atlanta officers have applied for jobs elsewhere.

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Morris Worthen feels abandoned. Violent crime spiked in Atlanta over the Independence Day weekend, with an 8-year-old girl killed by vigilantes manning a blockade on a busy city street. The sense, says Mr. Worthen, is that “the police just don’t seem to care anymore.” Data show a precipitous drop in arrests since May.

Other cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit, have seen a similar surge in violent crime, particularly within Black communities. Some point to coronavirus lockdowns, which have put disproportionate stress on Black communities, with higher death and unemployment rates. But others say a deeper shift in public safety is underway.

As police have stepped back from more aggressive policing, one activist wonders how that’s been seen by those “who might be inclined to commit crime. Was it that a sense of impunity started to go up?”

Whatever the case, says Thaddeus Johnson, a criminologist and former police officer: “When people don’t trust the police or don’t feel the police have their best interests at heart, communities may start taking matters into their own hands.”

The barricades were set up within sight of the Wendy’s where an Atlanta police officer killed Rayshard Brooks last month. According to local reports, they had been there before, set up by civilians armed with semiautomatic weapons, deciding who would be allowed to pass. Residents had asked the vigilantes to leave but were ignored. A member of the City Council had been trying for days to defuse the situation.

When Secoriea Turner’s mother encountered the blockade on her way home, she decided to do a U-turn. That’s when the men opened fire, fatally wounding the 8-year-old girl.

Thirty-one people were shot across the city over that July Fourth weekend, as the homicide rate doubled over the previous year. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency in the city. But similar spikes have been seen in New York City, Chicago, and Detroit.

Violent crime usually increases during summer months, but the past month has seen levels not reached for years, if not decades, in these cities. The crimes have been predominantly within the Black community, with some pointing to the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. Black communities have been hit harder both medically and economically.

Yet there’s also a sense that the upheaval around policing has played a role. Indeed, images of the vigilante blockade that led to Secoriea’s death paint a portrait of police, in at least some cases, appearing to have partially ceded the streets.

After the arrest of the officer who shot Mr. Brooks, for example, the Atlanta Police Department saw its chief resign and as many as 50 officers applying for jobs elsewhere. In New York, meanwhile, police reforms that predated the pandemic have similarly raised questions about the line between responsible policing and public safety. In Seattle, police withdrew from an entire area of the city for weeks when protesters moved in.

Now, as crime spikes in areas where police have traditionally had a conspicuous and controversial presence, the debate over policing has shifted. When a community’s faith in the police collapses, how can public safety be maintained?

There is a rising “crisis of police legitimacy,” says Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, an independent organization focused on public safety policy reform. “Police everywhere are now distrusted, and it’s boiling to the surface in a way I’ve never seen before.”

Feeling abandoned

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Morris Worthen takes a break from cutting grass in Atlanta's Edgewood neighborhood on July 8, 2020, near where five people were recently shot, two of whom died. "All this craziness is causing people to arm themselves," he says about police pulling back from making arrests after controversial police shootings.

For some in Atlanta, the feeling is one of abandonment. “The police just don’t seem to care anymore,” says Morris Worthen, a Black Atlanta native. At the same time, he adds, “Everybody protests police shootings of Black people, but I don’t see any protests when Black people kill Black people.”

Nearby, a white neighbor, Tom Doyle, says he can’t deny a shift in attitude among his neighbors, regardless of their race.

“If the police back off, there’s really only two things left to do: defend yourself or be a victim,” says Mr. Doyle, who says he sometimes carries his gun.

But the police feel abandoned, too, says Thaddeus Johnson, a Georgia State University criminologist, who spent 10 years as an officer with the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee.

“If I’m an officer right now, I’m terrified to do anything,” he says.

“The reason I left the police force is everybody I arrested looked like me,” says Mr. Johnson. “There are a lot of Black officers who are conflicted like that: ‘My God, what am I representing, what am I doing?’”

Personally, he “doesn’t feel any less or more safe” as an Atlanta resident right now. But he does see a city separated by fear: demoralized police on the one hand, scared and mourning communities on the other.

“As a Black man who has been on both sides of this, my God, I can see both sides are suffering, but neither one can see the others because of their own suffering,” says Mr. Johnson.

SOURCE: Atlanta Police Department
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The picture in New York

In New York, which has the country’s largest police department, the crime rate still remains a fraction of what it had been in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But for the past few years, the New York Police Department has been scaling back much of its signature “broken windows” methods of policing. The theory maintains that enforcement of relatively minor quality-of-life violations will create a sense of order that in turn brings down more serious crimes.

Black and Latino neighborhoods bore the brunt of that effort, however, and community pressure forced the city to reform its focus on penny-ante violations. This year, New York City police officers have made about 40,000 fewer arrests compared with the first six months of 2019, even though gun arrests have remained nearly identical.

That makes the story surrounding the current spike in violent crime in New York much more complicated, says Mr. Aborn of the citizens commission. Shootings have been trending upward since December. And recent moves to ease criminal bail for nonviolent offenders have lowered the population at the notorious Rikers Island city jail.

Mr. Aborn wonders “if it’s a question of the narrative being received by those who might be inclined to commit crime. Was it that a sense of impunity started to go up?”

Craig Ruttle/AP
Terence Monahan, chief of department of the New York City Police, takes a knee with activists as protesters paused while walking in New York June 1, 2020. Police officials in New York City and elsewhere say recent shootings have shown there are consequences to some police reforms they see as misguided.

Nationwide, the pandemic, the sputtering economy, and armed demonstrations by both white and Black gun owners have all fed a sense of anxiety, fueling record-high gun purchases, says David Hemenway, a gun data expert at Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

The confluence, he says, can give Americans a “Mad Max” lens on 2020.

“Call it ‘blue flu’ or whatever,” says Mr. Johnson of Georgia State University. “Whether [a police pullback is] real or perceived, the costs for criminal activity are less now, and some people will see opportunity.”

“When people don’t trust the police or don’t feel the police have their best interests at heart, communities may start taking matters into their own hands,” he says.

Guns and Black America

Count Brother Charles, a Black gun rights activist in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of that community.

“We’re seeing law and order evolve in front of our eyes, and it’s very powerful,” he says.

Many of his friends in the Black gun movement have watched armed demonstrations by largely white gun owners with dismay, sensing a racial divide in demonstrations of “our heritage” and “our rights.” They have also balked at a Black Lives Matter movement that he says many see as infiltrated and ineffective.

Their response? Under the Not F*ing Around Coalition (NFAC) banner, Black gun owners demonstrated at Stone Mountain, Georgia, site of the world’s largest Confederate monument. They called out armed white supremacists to either “join us or fight us.”

Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
Joseth Jett spray-paints over the top of graffiti from the night before and paints "RIP Rayshard" June 14, 2020, in Atlanta. Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police during a struggle in a Wendy's drive-thru line.

NFAC has also provided security for the sister of Mr. Brooks, the Atlantan slain by police, and patrolled the neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was killed by three white men in February.

“I’m raising a little 11-year-old girl, so yes, I’m concerned about the direction the ... U.S. is going,” says Mr. Charles. “Even with a thousand [armed Black] people marching on Klansmen territory [at Stone Mountain] ... I don’t think we have the money or the firepower to compete with the other side’s military – the white supremacists. They’ve got a lot of guns.”

Black Americans have struggled for centuries to claim the same Second Amendment rights as white Americans. Early gun control was intended to make sure white people kept the upper hand over enslaved people. After Emancipation, white leaders wrote laws that made it more difficult for Black men to carry guns in the Jim Crow era.

“In 2020, we have to act as though these constitutional principles were sufficiently flexible to apply to everybody, [but] as we well know, the Second Amendment is not intended to apply to armed Black men,” says Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston and author of “The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America.” That’s why “this spectacle of armed Black men is terrifying to many – because the contradictions are catching up.”

Yet gun violence has taken a toll on Black communities, too. Atlanta City Councilmember Michael Julian Bond called the recent rash of violence “in vitro racial self-hatred.”

The way forward, say some activists, is not in thinking these crimes require an equally strong and violent police presence, but in addressing root causes of joblessness, education, health care, and housing. Their question is whether the whole notion of public safety can be reconceived.

In the current situation, however, guns are such a nexus that they threaten to override a more essential, human dynamic that may hold a key to stemming violence between Americans more broadly, says Mr. Johnson.

“Cops are citizens, they’re our neighbors, they do a job that’s damn near impossible, and we have lost sight of that,” he says. “And officers have lost sight of the fact that this is not my enemy, this is my community. But somewhere along the line, we forgot all that as everything got so politicized and racialized. You can’t get to the real answers. It’s frustrating.”

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