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What criminals can teach us about fighting crime

On what was a quiet day in April, Volkan Topalli finally gets the call. The rendezvous point will be a fast-food joint just outside the Five Points MARTA Station. It's a crowded, nondescript kind of place, which means it will be safe. Topalli needs to be there, ready and waiting, when the guy shows up.

click to enlarge ONE WITH THE STREET: Volkan Topalli stops to greet a homeless man in the Westside neighborhood where he conducts his street research. Because of the nature of the research, he asked that his face not be pictured. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • ONE WITH THE STREET: Volkan Topalli stops to greet a homeless man in the Westside neighborhood where he conducts his street research. Because of the nature of the research, he asked that his face not be pictured.

About a half-hour before the meeting time, Topalli locks the door of his downtown office and makes his way through the maze of fluorescent-lit hallways. He moves like a high-school wrestler -- tough, agile, focused on his task. His heavy brow and coal-black eyes suggest Eastern European blood (his mother is Turkish, his father Albanian). He's intense and straightforward, borderline stiff.

Except that when he takes a seat in the restaurant, his ruler-straight posture slackens. And when he opens his mouth to talk to the guy sitting across from him, his voice takes on a different edge -- less eloquent, more blunt. He turns on the tape recorder.

"Are you OK being in here?" Topalli asks.

"Yeah," the guy says, "I'm cool."

Topalli gets right to the point. "First I just want to know, do you sell drugs on a regular basis?"

"Yeah, every day."

"What do you sell?"

"I sell crack, weed. That's it."

"No Boy?"

"No Boy."

"In an average week, how much money do you think you take in doing that?"

"In a week? About two grand."

The dealer delves into the merits of slinging crack over heroin. ("The Boy, it's just too much traffic," he says of the latter. "It's just too much heat.") Topalli then starts to nudge the conversation toward the topic he's most interested in: how the dealer retaliates against those who disrespect him.

He has to make the shift appear seamless. He must act natural. There's no looking down at a set of notes with a guy like this. Not that Topalli needs notes; he's gone through the drill enough times by now.

"I'm going to ask you about that time you got robbed, the first time," Topalli says. "When was that?"

"This was like two years ago. I was in the parking lot next to a Dumpster, and I was stashing my shit. I don't know, some dude must have peeped me or something."

"He had a strap on?"

"Yeah, he had a gun on him. I ain't have no gun that time."

"Was he a user or a dealer?"

"I don't know what the fuck he was. It happened so fast. When I turned around, I'm like, 'Damn.' I'm thinking about this gun in my face. I know them some violent motherfuckers. They will straight dump on you, you know what I'm saying? I drop the shit. That was my chance right there."

"You ran? Weren't you afraid of him shooting you in the back?"

"Man, I ran. It ain't worth it when somebody's got a gun pointed in your face and they want some dope. I broke and ran around the trash can."

"Where did you go?"

"Went to my grandmother's house. I calmed myself down. She asking me questions about when I'm going to come and clean her carpet and all that, take the trash out. And I just been robbed. So first thing I did, I went to the bathroom, sat down."

"What were you feeling at that time? Were you feeling angry? Scared?"

"I was scared for my life, you know what I'm saying? The majority of the time, they'll shoot you. They don't give a fuck."

"Did you try to find out who the guy was?"

"It had to be somebody that been watching me stash my stuff right there. It had to be somebody that knew me. See, situations like that, you don't just wave your mark. You can't run your mouth."

Finally, Topalli's golden question: "Let's say somebody did walk up to you and they told you who it was. What would you do?"

"What would I do? I would sit back, think about it. If it's somebody I really know or know of, I would want to get this motherfucker. So my thing, I might bust the motherfucker upside his head. I would have just whipped his motherfucking ass. You jeopardize my motherfucking life for some motherfucking crack, and it ain't even worth it. I'll put him up in the motherfucking hospital, you know what I'm saying? Grady, bitch."

"Yeah, but if you just put him in the hospital he might come back again later."

"I ain't gonna lie, I'll pop him in his motherfucking ass. I'll pop him in his foot. He gonna live, but he gonna be hurting."

click to enlarge CRIME RE-ENACTMENT: Topalli has driven the Westside with robbers and drug dealers to better understand why they committed their crimes. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • CRIME RE-ENACTMENT: Topalli has driven the Westside with robbers and drug dealers to better understand why they committed their crimes.

The 26-year-old crack dealer is good at what he does. He buys an ounce for $800 and sells it for $3,000. He deals in the morning, usually from 6 a.m. to noon, so he can snag his customers on their way to work. He likes to do business in vacant apartments. He operates in different neighborhoods, wherever he ends up that day. But his closest ties are to the Westside.

Loosely bordered by Northside Drive to the east, a line of railroad tracks to the north, Atlanta's city limits to the west, and I-20 to the south, the Westside is home to less than 15 percent of the city's population -- and nearly 25 percent of its violent crime. There are no major supermarkets and few fast-food chains along Donald Hollowell Parkway, one of the area's main drags. Neither Wal-Mart nor McDonald's is willing to risk the storm of drug dealing and retaliation slayings. Kids sometimes line the streets late at night to hurl concrete blocks at passing cars. Last summer, they overturned a tanker, then climbed into the cab to beat the driver. In junked-up bunkhouses that charge $5 an afternoon, heroin and crack pass from dealers to users, while tuberculosis makes the rounds from prostitutes to johns. A white towel draped over a bicycle's handlebar is not meant for wiping sweat from the rider's brow -- it signals to pedestrians that he's holding dope. Schools such as Usher Elementary and Kennedy Middle struggle to get off the state's "needs improvement" list. The neighborhood's drug dealers start young, sometimes in the single digits.

It's the type of place that breeds criminals. And that's what draws Topalli there.

"There's a lack of opportunity," he says of the Westside, where he's ridden with drug dealers and spent the night in crack houses. "There's a lack of jobs. There's poverty. There are lots of easy things to point to and say, 'This causes crime.'"

Topalli is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University and a member of the school's Partnership for Urban Health Research. But unlike most criminologists, he does little of his work in prisons. To get closer to understanding the criminal mind, he seeks out offenders whose crimes are fresh. Once, when he asked a carjacker how long it had been since he jacked his last ride, the guy said 45 minutes.

Topalli goes where outsiders won't go. He doesn't carry a gun and doesn't show fear. He banks on being able to talk himself out of a bad situation. He's so up on his street slang that Hollywood screenwriters sometimes call. They want to know if their dialogue sounds legit.

Topalli finds the criminals he interviews through "recruiters" who used to work the streets themselves and happen to know the guys who still do. His quest is to discover how violent offenders become the way they are. He's also looking for ways to stop them.

"Pinpointing the exact reasons why people don't participate in crime is a lot more difficult than pinpointing the reasons why they do," Topalli says, sitting in his 12th floor office in GSU's Urban Life building and waiting on a recruiter who never shows. "'Why didn't this kid enter crime?' To me, that's a more interesting question. And you really can only get at the answer to that question by talking to both groups of people. So you've got to talk to the offenders. That's where you start that discovery process."

Over the past seven years, Topalli has interviewed more than 250 active criminals in Atlanta and St. Louis and has written nearly a dozen studies funded by organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation and National Science Foundation. His articles have appeared in the periodicals Criminology, The British Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Behavior.

He says the first thing an outsider must do to understand the criminal mind is become familiar with the code criminals live by, the code of the street. It's simple: What matters on the street is earning respect. Everything else is secondary.

Topalli points out that getting respect often means sending a message to those who disrespect you. In many cases, the insult can be slight, and the vengeance blistering. And with vengeance comes retaliation. That's part of the reason why violence is so hard to stop. Seemingly small altercations spiral out of control. They start between two people, but soon involve many.

In his line of work, Topalli must absorb some pretty disturbing information. He can't get squeamish, and he can't judge. He must objectively view what most people perceive to be straight-up evil. The trade-off is that he's offered a rare glimpse into the criminal mind. And what he finds can be surprising.

Topalli remembers the time when he asked a career robber what he did with the $5,000 he stole from a drug dealer. The guy said he put the money in a mutual fund for his kid. Topalli told him he was full of crap, that he didn't even know what a mutual fund was. So the guy started listing different mutual funds: Vanguard, S&P 500. "It really shut my mouth up," Topalli says.

According to Topalli, most criminals aren't losers. The losers end up dead or in prison. The majority of the guys Topalli talks to are "successful" criminals. They don't merely act; they think. They might spend weeks exacting a plan for revenge. They have a philosophy about what they do. They have skills.

"Part of that expertise is developing a mind-set to commit crime without hesitation, without fear," Topalli says. "That takes time to develop. And then, just like with any other skill, you get better and better and better and better at it, until you could do it with your eyes closed."

The first rule Topalli lays down when he comes face-to-face with a carjacker, burglar, robber, or drug dealer: Don't talk about a rape or murder. If you do, you'll be turned in.

The rules that follow apply to Topalli himself:

Do not judge. You'll immediately lose trust and respect.

Do not act overly impressed. They'll know you're faking it.

Do not ask a bunch of dumb-ass questions about street slang. You'll interrupt the flow. And when you're sitting down with a hardened criminal, it's all about the flow.

click to enlarge PERFECT HIDE-OUT: Vacant apartments such as these in Vine City are a haven for drug dealing and prostitution. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • PERFECT HIDE-OUT: Vacant apartments such as these in Vine City are a haven for drug dealing and prostitution.

"Oil." "Boy." "Beats." "Spokes." "Humbug." "Flossing it." If Topalli were to digress every time an unknown word came up, he'd never get to the important stuff. Slang changes so quickly that when Topalli goes a few months without doing an interview, his language becomes dated. "They'll say, 'Oh, you're nerdy, man. You don't know what you're talking about anymore,'" Topalli says. "I had a research assistant who said 'weed,' and they started laughing their heads off. They said, 'We don't call it "weed" no more. It's called "green" now.'"

The side effects of talking so often with so many criminals are obvious -- and sometimes comical. After he first started interviewing offenders, Topalli went home to see his family for Thanksgiving. "I was at the table," he recalls, "and I said something to my mother like, 'Pass the fucking butter.'"

Both of Topalli's parents are immigrants. Before they met, his father was placed in an Albanian work camp, jailed along with the rest of his family because they defied the country's Communist-run government. He and one of Topalli's uncles escaped Albania, crossing a field of landmines and surviving for days in the mountains. Topalli's father spent a month in a Greek prison before eventually reaching Turkey, where he met his future wife. The couple later would move to Boston, where Topalli, who is now 40, was born and raised.

"My father came from a country that had a lot of violence," he says. "That was a big theme in our family. My father didn't like it when stronger people picked on weaker people. It was very much ingrained in us that fairness was a very important thing, and protecting weaker people was an important thing."

His father's experiences fueled Topalli's fascination with what motivates people to turn to violence. In 1998, after he earned a Ph.D. in experimental social psychology at Tulane, Topalli left New Orleans to do two years of post-doctoral work with Richard Wright at the University of Missouri. Wright was one of a handful of researchers who had popularized the relatively new phenomenon of "street research." He had walked dark alleys with drug dealers, visited crime scenes with burglars, and interviewed men with gunshot wounds so fresh that an offender's blood once spilled across the interview table. Wright was well-connected to St. Louis's underworld -- and well-versed in the code of the street.

He remembers Topalli as particularly suited to the gritty discipline. He says that even now, six years later, some of the offenders whom Topalli interviewed in St. Louis bring up his name. "They're always asking how their man Volkan is," Wright recalls. "The criminals really liked him, which is saying something. They don't like everybody. It's hard to fit in with them sometimes."

One of Topalli's most memorable interviews in St. Louis was with a serial carjacker called "Goldie." The 22-year-old had been stealing cars for eight years and had recently jacked a Cadillac Fleetwood. He told Topalli that he'd staked out a particular corner for the crime. When it went down, it went down badly.

"I'm sitting at this stoplight," Goldie said. "And I know how long that red light is. That's the longest red light around. It was a wild night, boy, and I wasn't even high, either, so I was feeling everything."

"So you get the gun," Topalli asked. "Then what happens?"

"Put it to his chin. Told him what he gonna do. But I ain't shoot him in his head. Put it on his thigh. Boom. Shot his leg. He got to screaming and shit-hollering, like a motherfucker gonna hear him or something. Cars just steady drive past and shit. I opened up the door. Forced his ass on up out of there, right? He laying on the ground hollering for help and shit. Ran over his feet or whatever."

"You know for sure that you ran over his feet?"

"Oh, yeah. I felt that."

"Did you hear him say anything, scream or anything?"

"I hear bones break, like all this down here was just crushed. I didn't give a fuck, though."

Driving down Hollowell Parkway on a balmy July afternoon, Topalli knows many of the people walking along the street. A fresh-faced Spelman student waves off his offer of a ride. A hunched-over heroin addict dips down an alley, failing to register him. "They used to think I was a cop," Topalli says, checking out a bunch of guys lounging on a high porch. "Now they think I'm a developer."

click to enlarge Members of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee listen for ways to fight crime. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • Members of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee listen for ways to fight crime.

There is a small surge in construction on the Westside, where land is relatively cheap and gentrification is in its infancy. To some, the shiny new houses signify a shift toward a safer future. Topalli points out that knocking down abandoned homes and replacing them with pricier ones could help bring a new sense of responsibility to the neighborhood. But that's not going to stop crime.

"What you'll have is a neighborhood with nice houses in it," he says, "but still a crime problem."

Yet there are little things that can help. Topalli asks robbers what they search for when they're targeting a victim. He asks burglars what they look for when they're casing a house. He asks dealers what they do to make a sale. Then he meets with groups such as the English Avenue Public Safety Committee, the Vine City Civic Association and the Neighborhood Planning Unit that covers the Westside, and shares with them what he knows.

He's learned that robbers steal street signs so that cops can't find crime scenes. Now residents press the city to replace them.

He's learned that a dealer throws a pair of shoes over a power line to signal that dope is for sale underneath. Now residents form teams that pull shoes off the lines.

He's learned that burglars prefer houses in front of streetlights that have been snuffed out. Now residents push Georgia Power to fix all the broken streetlights. At a recent meeting of the English Avenue Public Safety Committee, Lee Cronan, a Georgia Power engineer, told the crowd of 20 or so people that he likens his task of repairing streetlights on the Westside to his two tours running recon in Vietnam. "I'm not afraid," he said. "Up to this point, I've had two knives pulled on me and a gun pulled on me."

Topalli believes that, in addition to the little things he's learned, a big part of fighting crime is finding a way to overcome two key components of the code of the street.

One is the way in which criminals perceive the future. It's true that poverty, strained schools, peer pressure and a fractured family can push a person toward crime. But not everyone living under those circumstances becomes an offender. Topalli says the biggest difference between those who turn to crime and those who don't is how far into the future they can think. Most criminals literally don't conceive of things happening a month or week or day from now. "They see that life is short," he says. "It's an ethos. You could die at any time."

Topalli says that when people can look foward to the future -- even a few days into the future -- it can help deter them from crime.

In addition to an absent future, the other major contributor to violent crime is the retaliation factor. That's one of the most crucial lessons Topalli has learned from his work: Until the urge to retaliate can be controlled, crime will continue to spread.

Topalli points out that not all crimes get reported. When robbers target drug dealers, the dealers don't call the cops. When a carjacker is shortchanged by a chop shop, he doesn't file a complaint. Instead, they seek revenge. If they don't, they open themselves to further attacks. "If a drug dealer is robbed, he's got to go out and do something about it," Topalli says. "The weak ones get hit and hit until they die."

And so initial tiffs inevitably lead to larger conflicts. If there was a way to intervene sooner, crime just might subside.

Two months after Topalli first met Goldie, he sat down with the carjacker again. The second interview proved even more illuminating than the first. It turns out that the guy Goldie jacked had caught up with him.

"What happened?" Topalli asked.

"I call them a bad day."

"Just call them a bad day?"

"Yeah. I got shot."

"Can you tell me where you got shot?"

"In the abdomen."

"Do you mind if I ... is there a scar there? Oh, man!"

"Here's where they sewed me up."

"How many stitches did they put in?"

"I had 20 staples."

"Let me ask you this: How do you feel about this? I mean, because this is something that you started, right?"

"Right."

"You don't feel like you all are even now? You shot him, he shot you."

"He treat me like a punk, you know what I'm saying? Shot me and didn't want to be seen."

"You would have had more respect for him if he hadn't done it that way?"

"Right."

"OK. But you don't feel even?"

"When I feel good is when I don't have to worry about him no more."

"Is that what the concern is for you, that you don't have to worry about him coming at you anymore? Or is it is another thing, like you've got a reputation or something?"

"That, too. When they hit you, you hit them back. That's how it is down there, or you'll be a bitch. Everybody will shoot you up, whoop your ass. It's just I got to do what I have to do. You know what I'm saying?"

To Goldie, that's life on the street, living by the code. It all comes down to respect.

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