New Orleans and East Atlanta have a couple of things in common for Morgan Skilling. An independent cultural spirit–or “the buzz,” as she refers to it–and hot summers. Adjusting to the crime has been harder for the Hurricane Katrina evacuee.
“It’s appalling, dreadful,” she said, reflecting on the multitude of East Atlanta break-ins that started the day she moved into a new home five years ago. “It’s freaky because living in New Orleans, less than a half-mile from the projects, I never had any problems.”
For more than two years, East Atlanta, with boundaries in DeKalb County and Atlanta, has experienced a significant surge in reported crime. Burglaries are the biggest problem. Since June 2007, more than 450 have been reported in the area, according to statistics.
Skilling’s house has been broken into five times—three times in one month—with the latest attempt in the past few weeks. Deterrents such as window pins, burglar bars, Web cams, an alarm system and a pack of howling beagles have done nothing.
“You regularly hear, ‘I went to the store and somebody broke into my house,’” said Myron Polster, public safety chair of the East Atlanta Community Association, who moved there eight years ago with his wife, favoring its accessibility to midtown and downtown Atlanta.
East Atlanta a transitional neighborhood hailed for its charming bungalows and bohemian vibe by the New York Times and Creative Loafing, however this unwelcome reality has caused reactions of despair and vigilance among residents.
Woeful 911 call response times and an overstretched, at times furloughed police department suffering high turnover are, for many, signs that the financially crippled city cannot adequately deal with the escalating crime. Some crimes are therefore unreported.
Unsurprisingly, public safety was a hot-button issue in the recent mayoral election, with Kasim Reed, the winner of a razor-thin runoff margin, pledging to add 750 officers. Yet, as Polster explained, more cops are not the panacea for a myriad of problems.
“The APD need to do a better job of retaining officers,” he said. “There’s a knowledge gap...and newer officers aren’t as good and experienced at knowing who [the criminals] are.”
Polster believes that a few individuals or small groups with a leader, are responsible for targeting the area, and has noticed that when convictions or arrests are made it is reflected in a statistical downturn.
Skilling’s experience of a three-break-in month is a classic example of being targeted. “The first time they pulled everything out of the closet but left the flat-screen,” said the head of Atlanta Beagle Rescue. “They got the TV and everything else the second time. We also had 10 dogs in the house that make a lot of noise. They [the robbers] gave them something because they were pretty sick for a few days after.”
Some perceptions of a poor economy leading to desperate acts and police furloughs are also misconceptions of why crime has escalated, according to the statistics. “The furlough certainly didn’t help but crime was down during the furloughs, and crime started to going up in 2007, when the economy was good,” said Polster.
Instead, repeat offenders are considered a more significant problem. Criminals like Cedric Walker, a 45-year-old who was recently arrested, have shown a tendency to prey on the same area, according to Polster, who said doing more to track the whereabouts of offenders like Walker would help prevention.
It’s one reason the neighborhood association has taken a more active role. A security patrol, funded by East Atlanta residents, of five to six handpicked, off-duty police officers was started three years ago to create a greater presence. It represents a significant step toward a more effective community driven surveillance solution.
“The citizens themselves need to keep the neighborhood informed and share information.” said Polster. Doing so, he added, would help direct patrols to patterned “hot spots.”
Furthermore, more vigilant neighborhoods, where residents keep a watchful eye on activity, would deter targeting. It requires greater communication, which takes time, and possibly financial incentives to start “neighborhood watch” plans, such as lowering the price of security patrols for those streets that start a neighborhood watch, said Polster.
A few simple individual steps can also help. “Keeping shades closed is important if you have flat screen TVs. New people come to the neighborhood, watch TV and find that they’re not watching it for long,” said Polster, highlighting the naivety of less “street-wise” residents and visitors who often come with a transitional area.
Even as the community fights back, however, the city still has a significant role to play. Response times of 911 calls were again in the news after a brazen armed robbery of Zesto’s in Little Five Points recently, in which it was alleged that an employee was put on hold.
“We didn’t bother reporting the last one [break-in],” said Skilling, who has experienced being put on-hold before. “Every little thing has to go through 911, even if you have a flower pot stolen.”
Skilling said that neighborhood residents have begun their own patrols but sees the need for a far greater and focused police presence as crucial in making these efforts worthwhile. “I think the neighborhood is rocking; there’s good communication here and the people are on it,” she said. “The key to security is feet on the street, not just officers driving around.”
Seemingly, it’s a point universally shared. “It’s about us demanding more of the city and being willing to pay for what you’re demanding,” said Polster.
The new mayor could find a short honeymoon period as demands to deliver on campaign promises intensify.
“I get sick to my stomach every time I leave the house—there’s a paranoia that comes with it,” said Skilling. “I feel like I have to live in a fortress.”