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After historically deadly 2020, Atlanta homicides are up nearly 60% in 2021

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ATLANTA — Not a day goes by that Glenda Mack doesn't think of her grandson. She wears a heart-shaped necklace with his pictures on it and talks to him each night when she prays.

She'd raised David since he was 5 days old and had high hopes for his future. He loved his family, enjoyed computers and liked playing outside.

He'd been cooped up inside during the pandemic, but assured his grandmother that he and his friends would keep their masks on if she let him go out to play football. She reluctantly agreed.

"It's right up the street from us," Mack said. "He told me 'I love you' and I said, 'Love you too.' But he didn't make it there."

Relatives discovered David Mack's body while searching for him the following day. He'd been shot to death behind a public golf course about a quarter-mile from his southwest Atlanta home. He was 12.

David was one of more than 60 people in Atlanta whose lives were ended by violence this year.

Diamond Johnson, 15, was killed last month when an argument led to gunfire in a southeast Atlanta shopping center. Calvin Jackson Jr., 17, a rising Midtown High School junior, was shot to death over Memorial Day weekend in his family's Old Fourth Ward apartment. Yong Ae Yue, 63; Soon Chung Park, 74; Suncha Kim, 69; and Hyun Jung Grant, 51, were killed in March when a gunman went on a shooting rampage at three metro Atlanta spas.

Atlanta police have investigated 64 homicide cases in 2021, a 58% increase over this time last year. The surge follows a historically deadly 2020, when authorities investigated 157 homicide cases — the most in more than two decades.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has referred to the spike in violence as a "COVID crime wave," but the city's death toll continues to mount as more Georgians get vaccinated and life returns to normal. As of June, Atlanta's murders are up and shootings have increased by 40%, according to the latest data. Meanwhile, overall arrests are down by by about 43% as Atlanta's police force remains about 400 officers below what's budgeted.

More than 200 officers quit the force in 2020, many after criminal charges were filed against the two involved in the deadly shooting of Rayshard Brooks and other officers who used their Tasers on two college students during last summer's protests downtown.

Since then, department leaders say morale is stabilizing and that they plan to hire 250 new officers in the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

More bodies, more gunshot wounds

Dr. Karen Sullivan, Fulton County's Chief Medical Examiner, said her office conducts death examinations from cities across Fulton, but most of the homicide victims they encounter are killed in Atlanta.

"Anecdotally, it seems as though the complexity of the homicides is increasing," Sullivan said recently. "Years ago ... the vast majority of homicide cases due to gunshot wounds were one, maybe two — rarely three gunshot wounds. Now, it's quite common for people to have been shot 10, 12 times."

She said family members often have questions about how their loved ones die, including how long it took them to succumb to their injuries and whether they suffered.

"We feel our job is important because not only are we determining cause and manner of death, but we're able to talk to the decedents' families about what happened to them," Sullivan said, "Being able to give people some bit of closure is important to us."

While any homicide is tragic, Sullivan said it can be especially difficult when the victim is someone young.

"So many of our deaths are unnecessary," she said. "They do have an impact on us, even more so when it's a child who is an innocent bystander caught in crossfire or some other circumstance."

The number of killings investigated by the ME's office each year rose gradually between 2017 to 2019, but there was a sharp increase starting last summer. Data show the number of homicides in the county jumped from 183 in 2019 to 255 last year, an increase of nearly 40%.

A disturbing trend

Crime in Atlanta has become a central issue in this year's race for City Hall, especially after Bottoms announced she would not seek reelection in the fall. Some have called for Buckhead residents to break away and form their own city, and state officials have started stepping in to address Atlanta's rise in crime.

Homicides are up in many cities across the nation, yet critics believe Atlanta has not done all it could to stem the rise in violent crime. Many saw Bottoms as slow to respond to the surge in killings, and momentum was building for opposition in November's election even before she dropped out of the race.

"Anecdotally, it seems as though the complexity of the homicides is increasing. Years ago ... the vast majority of homicide cases due to gunshot wounds were one, maybe two — rarely three gunshot wounds. Now, it's quite common for people to have been shot 10, 12 times." — Dr. Karen Sullivan, Fulton County's Chief Medical Examiner

The city's spike in violence dominated a recent meeting of the Georgia Anti-Gang Network, a coalition of local, state and federal law enforcement started in late 2018.

Atlanta police Chief Rodney Bryant acknowledged the rise in crime is concerning, but said the majority of shootings stem from arguments between people who know each other.

"The shootings that we continue to see, a good portion of them started out as just a conflict," he said. "When people fail to have conflict resolution, this is what we're seeing. This is the negative outcome of it."

He referenced the death of teen Calvin Jackson; whose cousin Jamarion Ivory, 18, was arrested two days after the shooting and charged with felony murder.

"How is it that two cousins can't resolve a conflict?" Bryant asked. "That's just disheartening."

Atlanta city leaders are looking to add more surveillance cameras, increase programs for at-risk youth and bring back retired officers to patrol city parks. The police department has also repeatedly posted social media messages begging people to quit shooting each other — typically after violent weekends or another child's death.

"Our investigators and officers will leave no stone unturned to find violent suspects and bring them to justice, but we cannot resolve this issue alone," a department spokesman said in an emailed statement. "We need people to make smarter decisions. Gun violence isn't a political issue. It is not a Second Amendment issue and it's not a race issue. It is people making terrible decisions with guns, poor anger management, and it is a profound carelessness and lack of regard for human life."

On Monday, Bryant told the City Council he is "immediately restructuring" his department, by centralizing its investigations unit, creating a new domestic violence team and expanding APD's gun assault unit. The changes, he said, should allow officers "to work more aggravated assault cases more thoroughly, more efficiently and take individuals off the streets more rapidly."

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has called the surge in violence out of control, and says it's only likely to get worse as the weather warms up. "In the summer when the heat rises, crime always rises," she said. "And we seem to be in a particularly violent time right now."

Authorities urge gun owners not to leave weapons in their cars. Atlanta police have received 827 reports of guns stolen out of cars in 2021, the department said Tuesday. Investigators say those weapons are often used in violent crimes. By comparison, Atlanta police said 1,035 guns were reported stolen from cars last year and 988 were taken in 2019.

"We as citizens are helping to arm criminals and one of the ways we're doing that is by leaving our guns in our car," Willis said. "We're giving people access to a tool they can use in a crime."

Over the summer months, Bryant said he plans to shift resources to get more officers on the street. They'll target the hardest-hit areas of the city and focus on gun violence and gangs, he said.

"We've seen an uptick in crime throughout Atlanta and I want to reassure the citizens of Atlanta that we will be vigilant," he said.

Coping with the grief

For the grief-stricken families of Atlanta's homicide victims, closure is often hard to come by.

Calvin Jackson's mother and sisters still live in the Atlanta apartment where the 17-year-old was killed last month. His belongings are still there, and his mom says she's reminded of him every time she turns around.

"Even when I pull up to my house and I got groceries in the car, he was the first person I'd call to help me bring them in," said Tawanna Brooks. Since Calvin's death, even menial household tasks send her into despair.

"It's just so different with him not being here right now," she said. "It don't even feel right."

Months after David Mack's death, no arrests have been made.

"I have my moments. We still talk about it and we still think about it," said Glenda Mack, who has 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandkids. "We're just praying, and I talk to David every night. It's rough, but we're coping. We gotta cope because we don't have just ourselves to think about."

Mack and her granddaughter have been staying with her daughter in South Fulton. She goes home occasionally, but it's always tough, she said. Just about everything in David's room looks the same as it did the day he went missing. Sometimes when she really misses him, she pulls out her phone and plays a video of David reciting a poem he wrote on her last birthday. She does it just so she can hear his voice.

"Happy birthday to a lady who's worth more than gold," David tells her. Mack's eyes filled with tears as she watched the video again last week on her daughter's sofa. "There wasn't a day that went by that he didn't tell me he loved me," she said, recalling the big bear hugs David would give her when he told her.

Mack, who lives along Beecher Road, believes more could be done to curb the incessant shooting in the community. Crime has long been an issue in her southwest Atlanta neighborhood, but the gunfire became more prevalent around the start of the pandemic last year, she said.

And if anyone knows who killed her grandson, they aren't saying anything. The department launched a mass canvassing effort following the child's death, going door-to-door in the hope someone may have seen something. So far, nobody has come forward.

There's a police precinct not far from where David's body was discovered. Mack says if she can hear gunshots at all hours of the night, she's sure the cops can, too.

"I guess someone has to make a 911 call before anybody does anything," she said. "That's what upsets me. This happens all the time."

Bottoms has formed a committee to study Atlanta's crime surge and provide recommendations about what could be done to reverse the trend. Mack isn't hopeful a committee will bring about any meaningful change.

"She turned it over to some kind of task force that's gonna study the problem," she said. "I mean how much you gotta study? We're hearing it first hand. They need to be doing something to keep this from happening."

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2021 HOMICIDES BY THE NUMBERS

Three of the 64 Atlanta homicide cases stem from incidents that took place prior to this year, but each was officially ruled a homicide in 2021.

The average age of those killed this year was about 34, compared to about 33 in 2020.

Most were Black men. Seven Black women and teens, two Hispanic males and four Asian women were also among the dead.

Most were killed by rifles and handguns.

Compiled by Jeremy Redmon

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ON AJC.COM

Go to AJC.com for Complete list the Atlanta Police Department 62 homicides so far this year: 59 incidents that have happened this year, and three cases that happened in years past but ruled homicides in 2021.

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