On Dec. 17, local video producer and blogger Kyle Keyser stopped at the Pizza Hut on North Avenue to pick up a late dinner for his roommate's boss. Five men stood outside the pizza joint. One asked Keyser if he'd buy him some food. Keyser, sympathetic to the man's hunger, said sure.
But the restaurant was closed, and as Keyser returned to his car, the five men surrounded him and pushed him against a nearby vehicle. One shoved a gun to his neck. They demanded money. Keyser said he didn't have any but handed over his ATM card.
The men took Keyser's cell phone and wallet and ordered him to lie on the ground. One suspect, pistol in hand, took aim.
"I'm gonna shoot him," Keyser recalls the suspect saying. "I'm gonna shoot this motherfucker."
"Don't shoot him," pleaded the guy who Keyser had offered to buy food.
"Naw," the gunman said, "I'm gonna shoot him in the leg."
Keyser, face down on the pavement, braced himself for a bullet. Instead, he saw five pairs of sneakers walk off. He sensed he had an exit, jumped in his car, and sped toward Midtown to call the police. He says bank receipts show the suspects purchased food with his card at a gas station a block away.
"OK, people get mugged and asked for money," says Keyser, whose house has been broken into twice. "There's a certain amount of crime that you associate with living in the city. It's not forgivable, but it's understood. You know it's going to happen. What concerns me now is the spike in violent crime."
Keyser and several community watchdogs speak to a spike in intown violence and a dip in police presence. Atlanta crime statistics, however, suggest otherwise.
Six days after the Pizza Hut incident, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington had a rare bit of good news to share. In an e-mail to members of the Atlanta Police Foundation, the chief boasted about the city's record number of police officers and the department's success at fighting crime.
"Crime has been dramatically reduced and there are more officers on our streets than ever before," Pennington wrote. "Since 1990 the number of violent crimes in Atlanta has decreased from 75,793 in that one year to 43,828 currently."
According to the most recent data from APD Zones 5 and 6, which include Midtown, Poncey-Highland and surrounding neighborhoods, crime is actually down compared to last year.
But residents of intown Atlanta say those statements and statistics don't mesh with reality. Violent crime, they say, has grown more frequent and brazen, a worrisome trend at a time when the department is actually scaling back officers to offset the city's $70 million budget shortfall.
Scott Kreher, the Atlanta police union president, disagrees with Pennington's portrait of the APD, particularly the chief's statement that there are more patrol officers now than ever.
Kreher says Pennington's claim that there are 1,781 officers patrolling the community includes support staff, detectives and officers stationed at the airport – in other words, cops who aren't working the streets.
What's more, the Atlanta police force – which has been stretched thin in recent years – is being stretched even thinner. Last week, the city announced officers would have to take an extra unpaid day off every two weeks.
At a press conference, Deputy Chief George Turner acknowledged that the changes will cause some shortages in services, but said the department would diligently work to offset those shortages.
Kreher says the cut is yet another misstep by the city – one that will weaken morale and hinder the force's ability to retain experienced officers. In the short term, it will mean 150 fewer badges patrolling the streets every day.
"You can sugarcoat it all you want," Kreher says. "You can't help but have service problems when you cut that many people every day."
Peggy Denby, the public safety chairwoman of the Midtown Neighbors Association, agrees with Kreher that there seems to be a disconnect between the APD's statistics and crime as she sees it.
"I believe that the numbers don't support crime increases," Denby says. "We see more crime in our neighborhood than we did last year, and it's more brazen than it has been in the past."
What happened Dec. 3 at a Poncey-Highland apartment complex is a prime example of what Denby describes.
According to a police report of the incident, three young men – claiming to be Crips from Boulevard and armed with a shotgun, a semi-automatic pistol, and a sub-machine gun – entered a Seminole Avenue apartment at around 11:30 p.m. through the unlocked back door. They surprised the male resident and a female friend, who were watching a movie.
The suspects – two of whom are believed to be under the age of 18, with the youngest appearing to be about 12 years old – repeatedly struck the 37-year-old man in the head with the butt of the shotgun before tying him up with a microphone cord. The 27-year-old woman, who was tied up with an audio cord and belt, was taken to another room and sexually assaulted by two of the suspects. The victims gave the third suspect their ATM cards and PIN numbers. He left the scene to withdraw money; upon returning he sexually assaulted the woman, too.
After leaving the victims tied in the apartment, the suspects made off with the resident's car and music equipment.
The victims were able to free themselves and left the apartment to call police. Detectives are still investigating the crime and could not comment.
Kreher believes police presence via patrols are the surest way to help prevent incidents like the Poncey-Highland home invasion.
In the meantime, he says, Atlantans must be vigilant.
"It's going to take the residents stepping up to the plate," Kreher says. "Call and call and call when they see something that's not right in the neighborhood. Call the major in your zone and demand the services you're paying for."
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