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The key to saving Buckhead 

Atlanta's police shortage -- not racial tension -- to blame for Buckhead crimes

It's 2 a.m. Saturday on Bolling Way, the epicenter of Buckhead nightlife. People of every color, size and shape are crowding the pavement. Young women are teetering on high heels, their sequined halters hanging askew as they lean into their companions. Beyond the bubbles blown by a woman in hot pants and boots atop a van in front of Makos, guys are leaning out of a car they have parked rather inconsiderately across the entrance to a parking lot. They issue commentary on passing women and invite them to prove they're more than just putting on the appearance of being sexually liberated.

It looks, smells and feels a lot like Six Flags without the rides and cutoff shorts.

There are eight police officers stationed along this two-block stretch from Tu Tu Tango on Pharr Road to Starbucks on East Paces Ferry. Several stand, like ducks with their feet nailed to the floor, behind a portable railing. They don't really patrol the way you'd expect police to patrol, but there's a reason for that. Unless an officer in Buckhead is in a city of Atlanta cruiser, you can rest assured that the officer is not on the city clock; the uniformed officers standing in doorways or behind the railing, or ushering cars into parking lots are working private security jobs. Between midnight and 2:30 a.m. when CL was casing the area, not a single Atlanta police car was to be found.

While city leaders and residents argue over issues like race and bar closing times, the real problem in Buckhead is a problem across the entire city -- far too few cops.

Atlanta police brass say the city has nearly 1,500 sworn officers -- about 300 fewer than authorized by the city budget and 500 fewer than Mayor Bill Campbell vowed to hire during his last campaign. But fewer than 1,000 of those officers are actually on patrol; the rest do support work or are in administration.

Nowhere is the shortage and its impact more apparent than during the wee weekend hours in Buckhead Village.

Other major cities devote scores, even hundreds, of officers to their entertainment districts. In New Orleans, for example, 160 to 180 on-duty police are assigned to the French Quarter, the Triangle and the Central District, a five-square-mile area that makes up the 8th precinct.

In Atlanta, that kind of coverage would be impossible.

"I couldn't do that. I don't have 160 officers in my entire zone," says Major Joe Spillane, commanding officer of Zone 2, where Buckhead is located.

As the top officer in a district that has gained notoriety for everything from hot nightclubs to dark-alley stabbings to one of the world's largest regularly scheduled parties on wheels, Spillane is in the hot seat. The key, he says, to controlling Buckhead's crime lies in controlling the cruising.

"The cruising camouflages the other things that are going on," says Spillane. "Maybe we could spot the criminals who rob people at gunpoint if we could spot them cruising around looking for people to rob, but everyone is cruising. So we can't pick them out."

Cutting down on cruising would be a labor-intensive task. Spillane, who is watching the 2 a.m. revelry from the confines of his unmarked car, notes for example that barricades (which New Orleans police use to limit access to the French Quarter) wouldn't really work in Atlanta. That's because the cruising takes place mainly along Peachtree Street, which really can't be closed, and because the people who run the valet parking outfits and residents of the side streets wouldn't approve.

"City officials and residents need to come to grips with the reality of the situation and admit that what we have here is an entertainment district," says Spillane. "That's what it is. We need to stop denying that, and we need to do things accordingly."

The situation differs dramatically from the beat of New York police Sgt. Walter Burns. He's worked for nearly 15 years in Manhattan's 14th precinct, which includes Times Square, Penn Station and Grand Central Station. Like Buckhead, NYC's 14th precinct is a favorite destination for out-of-towners, and its hundreds of bars close at 4 a.m.

But, at any given time, there are more than 400 officers actively on duty in the 14th precinct's entertainment areas. They're on the city's clock. None of them are working security jobs at bars. There is no cruising because unlike Atlanta, NYC is not a driving kind of town. Taxis may stack up for hours crawling through the all-new squeaky clean Times Square, but Jeeps and BMWs don't play dueling stereos trying to out-bass each other like moose sending mating calls.

This year, there have been four homicides in the heavily populated, heavily visited 14th precinct -- the same number reported in the Buckhead Village alone and half as many as those reported in Zone 2, which surrounds the Village.

Burns, a detective whose daughter attends Clark Atlanta University, says he was surprised by how uncomfortable he felt in Buckhead when he came down for a visit a few months ago. It was mainly the cars that caused him unease. Those who weren't stopped or cruising were zipping through at careless speeds. He cautioned his daughter to slow down. He hasn't forbidden her from going out in Buckhead -- he says she's a grown-up -- but sometimes, when he hears about the area's increasingly dangerous reputation, he worries.

"Cruising is a problem that keeps a city from functioning properly," says Burns. "If that's a problem, you've got to put enforcement on it. Here, we have cabs and people moving through Times Square. We don't have the kind of traffic where people get out of their cars and party."

Visit Buckhead late on a Friday or Saturday night, and you'll see that the real troubles aren't taking place in the clubs, which are blanketed by off-duty officers. While dancing and drinking takes place inside, a separate party dominated by a younger, wilder crowd takes place on the streets. In a Monday roundtable discussion on race and Buckhead at City Hall, V-103 radio personality Frank Ski warned against making sweeping generalizations based on the street scene. He noted that young African-Americans with more disposable income now have the means to frequent upscale Buckhead clubs.

"But there is another element that follows them that does not frequent the bars and restaurants," he said. "They cruise."

Lt. Marlon Defillo, an officer with the New Orleans Police Department's public affairs unit, says a strong police presence is crucial to getting such problems under control.

"I think it just goes back to visibility," says Defillo. "We were short on staff severely back in '95 and '96, and the super didn't hesitate to bring in other law enforcement to help out. I mean the whole crux of what we do is providing public safety."

It doesn't feel that way to many Atlanta police officers. It's true that crime has dropped in Atlanta, as it has across the country. But police on the beat say it feels like they're trying to hold back a river with a sieve.

In Buckhead, a young officer who makes $17 an hour at the APD and $25 an hour at his part-time security job, watches the parade of partiers with a mixture of chagrin and optimism. Asked to explain his demeanor, he says: "I'm waiting for my application to be processed at another police department."

Ideas from other cities
Chicago's Rush Street area and New Orleans' entertainment district haven't had a homicide in two years. CL interviewed officers with those city's police departments, as well as police in New York and Miami Beach to find out what they're doing right. Here's what we found:

  • Have a highly visible police force -- on foot, in cars, on bikes, on horses or even on scooters.

  • Barricade part of the district, encouraging people to use public transportation which cuts down cruising as well as the use of crime-prone parking lots and side-streets.

  • Enforce curfew for those who are 18 years old or younger.

  • Enlist the courts to set up a "mapping program" that banishes criminals from a designated area as a stipulation of probation.

  • Require bars that want to stay open late to send certified letters to residential and business neighbors asking for their approval.

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