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East Atlanta neighbors stand up against crime 

Last summer, when several homes on her Ormewood Park street were hit by burglars — some more than once — Donna Williamson decided she wasn't going to wait her turn to get robbed.

She posted a meeting notice for anyone interested in finding ways to deal with the crime wave. Then, a few days prior to the July 2 meeting, a woman was abducted from the nearby East Atlanta Village at gunpoint and forced to withdraw money from an ATM before being released. For Williamson, that was the last straw.

"I said at the meeting I didn't want people to simply sit there and moan and bitch about what someone else should do about the problem," she recalls. "We need to do it for ourselves."

The result was Safe Atlanta For Everyone, a group of about 50 East Atlanta and Ormewood residents who walk their nearby streets to keep an eye out for suspicious cars and hand out occasional fliers listing safety tips.

If SAFE sounds reminiscent of a neighborhood watch from a bygone era when neighbors actually bothered to learn each other's names, that's intentional. But technology has brought improvements. These neighbors also Twitter and blog and use an arsenal of virtual tools to keep each other informed – often in real time – of the latest crimes and suspicious behavior in their community. Instead of waiting for the criminals to come to them, they post mugshots online, swap "be on the lookout" notices by e-mail, and even track the whereabouts of shady characters so folks down the block can see them coming.

Depending on who's crunching the numbers, property crime seems to be surging across much of the southern half of the city. The tipping point came in January, when John Henderson, a bartender at the Standard on Memorial Drive, was shot and killed by burglars. Henderson's death occurred on the heels of an order by Mayor Shirley Franklin that police man-hours would be cut back for budgeting reasons.

The crime surge, coupled with police furloughs, has angered many neighbors, who've held protests and formed grassroots crime-fighting groups. And still, in several parts of town, crime continues to rise.

At a town hall meeting in southwest Atlanta last month, one family complained of being robbed five times in the last six months as City Council President Lisa Borders and police officials suggested ways residents could protect themselves.

But when Borders comes to East Atlanta for a similar meeting March 3, residents there will be able to tell her how they're already using 21st-century technology and good old-fashioned shoe leather to take a bite out of crime.

When Ken Womack launched out of his home in mid-2006 between his newborn daughter's feedings and diaper changes, he intended the website to serve as a community bulletin board for his neighbors to post information about yard sales and new restaurants. Sure enough, it soon became something of a community Facebook for East Atlantans.

But about a year ago, Womack – who uses the nom de Web Cap'n Ken – noticed that activity on the site's public safety thread was quickly overtaking those for parenting and swap meets. As neighbors began to post horror stories about break-ins, car thefts and muggings, traffic skyrocketed.

"Once someone became a victim of crime, they'd hear about our site and sign up," Womack says. Currently, he estimates, the site has 2,500 registered members, 300 of whom might contribute posts or comments on any given day. More than 100 Buzz members have posted at least 1,000 times over the life of the site, he says.

Womack himself has become something of a one-man clearinghouse of crime information. Every day he scours local police websites for new arrests, downloading mugshots of robbery suspects and keeping track of jail release dates. He packages the information in his popular "Know Your Perps" feature, in which he recounts the details of alleged crimes, lists suspects' prior arrests and most recent charges, and even lists their last known address.

"I try to be responsible about it," says Womack, who cheekily described one alleged perp online as a "stolen car enthusiast." "I don't call someone a burglar if he hasn't been convicted, but if someone has a string of very similar arrests, the community should know about it."

As a stay-at-home dad, Womack also keeps an ear trained on the police scanner, often updating neighbors on manhunts and high-speed chases as they unfold via the Buzz and Twitter. But he doesn't carry the load all by himself. Most of the "be on the lookout" posts come from neighbors warning each other about suspicious cars cruising the streets or perp sightings. It's common for these items to garner hundreds of views and dozens of comments, often with additional information.

In fact, the Buzz has gingerly entered an arena where traditional policing is arguably ineffective: tracking juvenile offenders.

Under court order, juvenile trials aren't open to the public and prosecutors aren't allowed to release offenders' names or mugshots. What's more, Fulton is among a handful of Georgia counties that use a point system for juveniles, which means teens often can commit a number of crimes – from car thefts to break-ins – before they risk being locked up. Nearly all newspapers, including this one, observe the protocol of not identifying underage offenders.

But the private citizens who use the Buzz are under no such prohibition. Some have shot and posted paparazzi-style photos of alleged young perps-in-training. One alleged teen car thief has become so well known in East Atlanta, he can't go for a walk without getting the Buzz buzzing.

"He's almost become a public figure by this point," Womack jokes. "There's such a frustration with the juvenile justice system that even the cops talk fairly openly with neighbors about teen gangs."

The idea behind all these efforts is not to duplicate or replace the work of hired security patrols, such as those in Grant Park or East Atlanta – or the city's newest, the Trolley Patrol, which covers Ormewood Park, Benteen Park and Woodland Hills – explains Lewis Cartee, who coordinates SAFE's neighborhood watch program.

Instead, he says, it's to fill in the gaps where those programs and a stretched-thin police force can't cover. As neighbors become better acquainted with each other and more aware of their surroundings, they decrease their chance of becoming victims.

Says Cartee: "The goal is to let the criminals know that folks in these neighborhoods are paying attention."

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