ATLANTA -- Crime was the number one campaign issue in the Atlanta Mayor's race. The perception was that violent crime was up in the city. But statistics say otherwise.
The number of homicides in the City of Atlanta dropped 24% in 2009. You have to go back 48-years to 1961 to see numbers as low as they were in 2009. There were 80-homicides. That figure is down from 2008 when there were 105-homicides.
The numbers in Atlanta defy past trends. Typically when an economy is down, crime goes up. That's what makes the 2009 numbers surprising. But a Georgia State University Associate Professor of Criminal Justice says there are other factors that may have contributed to the decline.
Dr. Dean Dabney says one of the biggest factors is Atlanta's efforts to demolish city housing projects, a national trend the city is ahead of the curve on. "Taking that whole criminal environment and opportunity structure from the market if you will, out of the equation means that you're going to have a period of instability in the crime rate," Dr. Dabney said.
Major Keith Meadows, who was the Atlanta Police Department's Homicide Commander in 2009, likes to attribute some of the decline to good police work. He said the department has been targeting violent offenders before they commit murder. "It might be through their involvement in illicit activity, not just violent crimes, they may be involved in drug sales or gambling or prostitution," Major Meadows said. "We target those individuals."
Major Meadows also credits the city's Crime Stoppers program that relies on tips from the community to help solve crimes.
Another surprising statistic is that Atlanta Homicide Detectives have cleared 83% of their 2009 homicides. That figure is well above the national average of 58%. But Dr. Dabney says there's a simple reason for that. "The fewer homicides that a unit has to solve, the more time they can spend on each case," he said.
Major Meadows concurred. "Just a few years ago we had some homicide detectives that were handling up around eight murders a year," he said. "This past year I think we were averaging between four and five."
Why is the perception in Atlanta that violent crime is up? One answer, according to Major Meadows may be the number of high-profile cases that happened in 2009.
In July World Boxing Champ Vernon Forrest was gunned down after being robbed on the city's southwest side.
In February Dr. Jeanne Calle, a prominent Epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society, was killed in her midtown condo.
And in January bartender John Henderson was shot and killed inside the standard bar in Grant Park. The Grant Park community rallied around that crime making it a symbol of their frustration.
"Peoples perception of crime is up because the average citizen is being victimized," Dr. Dabney said. He said the criminal element that was exploiting Atlanta's housing projects didn't all of a sudden get jobs. He says they may be looking for new ground. "The crime that used to be there has moved elsewhere and it's moved into an environment that isn't used to it," he said.
Major Meadows admits the police department is having a hard time overcoming the perception of violent crime. But he says he understands people's feelings. "Anytime someone's been victimized, to them, crime is up 100-percent," he said.
Atlanta isn't alone. DeKalb County's homicide rate was down nearly 44% with 63-homicides in 2009. The county had 112-homicides in 2008.
Clayton County's homicide rate was down 37% from 27-homicides in 2008 to 17-homicides in 2009.
Dr. Dabney says it would be unfair to expect violent crime or homicides to continue to decline at those rates. He says common wisdom would be to expect a backwards trend.