Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin was in New York ... or was it Las Vegas? Maybe it was her trip to Tuskegee, Ala.? Or Vancouver, British Columbia? It could have been Tokyo or Seoul. It's darn hard keeping track of our peripatetic mayor.
Whatever, when bad news comes smashing into Atlanta, Franklin is likely to be anyplace else but the Big Peach.
Even when she is technically in Atlanta – as in the week following the Nov. 21 police slaying of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston – Franklin has a way of not being here. After the Johnston killing, in place of a mayor, we had a vacuum.
Likewise, when the FBI announced plea agreements with two narcotics officers involved in Johnston's death – and when U.S. Attorney David Nahmias decried a "culture of misconduct" at the Atlanta cop shop – where in the world was Franklin? Not in Atlanta.
So it was no surprise that when the FBI's annual crime-statistics report on American cities was released last week, Franklin was, according to her mouthpiece Beverly Isom, "not in." The mayor was on a trip.
Cynics and wags might snicker that the mayor was pumping up her frequent-flyer miles because the FBI report was hardly a success story for Atlanta's embattled top cop, Richard Pennington.
Simply stated, Atlantans have every right to be frightened by the crime statistics. We're a city among the worst in murders and violent crimes, when measured on a per capita basis. Indeed, it could be argued that, save for awful, awful Detroit, we're standing on the most dangerous turf in the nation.
Pennington's spokeswoman, Judy Pal, was saddled with the job of speaking for the mayor – the logic is the bosses can't be held accountable if you can't find the bosses. Pal says the FBI warns against using the crime statistics for comparative purposes, and she's right.
To a point. The FBI's numbers are "uniform," meaning cities' reports are based on similar standards. The reason the FBI mildly opposes comparisons is because the cities object – politicians don't want citizens asking irritating questions about police performance.
Still, here's what a comparison shows.
In New York, there was one violent crime (murder, rape, aggravated assault or robbery) for every 149 people in 2006. In Miami, it's one for every 66 people. In Boston, one for every 75 people. Los Angeles, a poster child for violent crime, had one for every 127 people. New Orleans, one for 191. Another crime-ridden city, Washington, D.C., had one for every 69 people. Charlotte, one for every 93. Dallas, one for every 83.
And Atlanta? There was one violent crime for every 64 people. Ouch.
Only in Detroit were the odds more likely – one in 41 – that a resident would be a victim of a violent crime. (Philadelphia tied with Atlanta.)
Homicide rates paint a similar picture. And, says Jack Levin, a prominent criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, "murder statistics are the hardest to manipulate and therefore the most reliable for establishing trends. You can't hide the bodies."
So, in New York, one of every 13,699 residents was murdered last year. In Miami, one in every 5,103 people. Boston, one in 7,499. Los Angeles, one in 8,082 (heck, I mistakenly thought bodies were piled on the street in L.A.). Charlotte, one in 8,326. Denver, one in 11,146. And, San Francisco, one in 8,675.
You're three times more likely to get murdered in ATL than NYC. One in every 4,416 Atlantans was murdered in 2006. However, three crime-plagued cities were more lethal death traps – Detroit (one in 2,121), New Orleans (one in 2,661) and Washington, D.C. (one in 3,441).
Hello, Shirley, we don't live in a safe city, at least compared with 20 major cities I surveyed.
So why is Atlanta in the running for most dangerous major city?
"It's part Southern culture, part poverty, and you can add to that transients," says a senior Atlanta police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But most of all it's management in the department."
Pal says Atlanta's number of murders is lower than several years ago. That's true. However, the 110 homicides in 2006 were 20 more than the previous year. The trend line is surging (it's a 22 percent increase) in the wrong direction.
Attention has been focused on Atlanta's police chief and his inner circle since the Johnston killing. Officers and police union leaders have decried Pennington's quota system. The chief's policies have forced officers to scramble to amass tallies of often-meaningless arrests and warrants, while real crime-fighting is shortchanged.
In a press release responding to the FBI's crime statistics, Pennington declared "illegal drugs are somehow related to a large percentage of murders." Obviously, the chief is no Sherlock Holmes. Of course drugs are a factor. But it was under Pennington that the number of narcotics officers was drastically reduced. Those who were left were forced by quotas to pursue low-level street dealers – pressure that contributed to officers lying in order to get warrants, the root cause of the Johnston slaying. Drug kingpin arrests, which take real police work, were few.
"The chief ignored the recommendations of his own study," says the senior police officer, referring to the $800,000 Linder & Associates report that recommended increased staffing.
Pennington was quick to take credit for decreasing crime rates, although police officers attribute the decline to closing of housing projects in the city. However, if Pennington wants to take credit for those decreases, he also has to take the blame for last year's increases.
Northeastern University's Levin says Atlanta "has a difficult task, in view of the current numbers, in trying to increase the safety in the city. It appears that policies [Pennington's emphasis on numbers of arrests] is a cheap imitation of New York City's 'no tolerance' enforcement."
So Atlanta is one of the least safe cities. Crime is increasing. The police department is racked with internal dissension and accusations of cronyism and incompetence among management.
What city is Shirley Franklin in today?
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