The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid surge in violent crime, Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhood ponders new city

The Buckhead district of Atlanta is seen reflected in the window of a men's boutique shop in 2018. (Kevin D. Liles for The Washington Post)

ATLANTA — Just a few days after Beth Weaver moved from the suburbs to a new townhouse in this city's wealthy Buckhead district, she began to worry that she had made a mistake.

One night she sat on her balcony and watched a thief rifle through her BMW. A few weeks later, someone broke into her family’s truck. In November, there was a shootout on her narrow street lined with townhouses that start at a half-million dollars.

“They would come through here on a bicycle and just start picking up packages and right out of your garage in broad daylight,” said Weaver, who lives in the area’s Broadview Place neighborhood.

“You did not feel safe,” said Weaver, whose neighbors have installed a network of surveillance cameras and are pushing city leaders to allow them to gate their development.

That feeling of not being safe has persisted as crime in the city has skyrocketed — the result, some say, of the pandemic and the civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd last summer. Some residents and business leaders in this affluent, predominantly White enclave north of downtown think they have a solution: They want Buckhead to become its own municipality.

They contend that with control of their tax dollars, they would be able to better protect themselves than the city has as violent crime — including shootings, car jackings and assaults — surges.

The group, the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, has asked the state for permission to allow its residents to vote on the issue and has raised more than $600,000. The effort, backed by some Georgia Republicans, represents the latest example of a burgeoning “cityhood movement” in the South as municipalities nationwide struggle to understand why crime continues to rise even as life begins to return to normal post-pandemic.

“The mayor and the city council have been making bad decisions, so at what point does anyone with a brain say, ‘Enough’?” said Bill White, chairman of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee. “If crime is out of control, and you are doing nothing about it, you are finished as a city.”

Analysts say the committee faces an uphill battle, but the campaign itself has sparked tension in the majority-Black city, a bustling hub of medical, entertainment and technology companies. To many Black Atlantans, talk of Buckhead leaving is a reminder of the city’s painful and tumultuous civil rights era. It also erodes the sense of unity that many residents felt after the greater Atlanta region rallied to help elect President Biden and two Democratic U.S. senators in November.

“It makes me angry because the crime they are seeing in Buckhead is the same crime we on the Southside have been dealing with for years,” said Stephanie Flowers, chair of Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit V, which oversees a group of neighborhood associations in predominantly Black neighborhoods southwest of downtown.

“We on the Southside, because of our demographics, we can’t pay our way out” of Atlanta, Flowers said. “This is just a way to separate the haves from the have-nots.”

'City in crisis'

Home to about 86,000 residents, Buckhead is anchored by a high-end shopping mall surrounded by 40-story office and luxury condominium towers that give it the feel of an urban playground for the rich. The area’s main commercial district is surrounded by smaller residential developments and strip malls in neighborhoods of tree-lined streets that include some of Atlanta’s most elaborate mansions.

Atlanta annexed the areas that include Buckhead more than 60 years ago as the city was gobbling up territory to better position itself as a powerhouse American city. For decades, Buckhead was one of its safest communities, but today it has become a symbol of Atlanta’s dramatic crime wave, which many describe as “a crisis” that threatens to upend decades of economic progress.

The most populated city in the Deep South, Atlanta has had 54 homicides and more than 250 shootings so far this year, according to its police department. Homicides are up 59 percent compared with the first five months of 2020, a year that itself ended with a two-decade high of 157 killings. Rape, assault and vehicle thefts have increased by more than 30 percent compared with last year.

The crime spike has become a major political hurdle for Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D), who in May shocked the city by announcing she would not seek a second term. Now, Bottoms’s policies are dominating the debate over whether she can keep modern-day Atlanta intact by slowing down the efforts of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee.

But supporters of the campaign say it has also become a referendum on Bottoms’s policies, which they blame for an exodus of police officers from the department.

After Bottoms took office in 2018, she pushed for policies to keep more low-level offenders out of the city’s chronically overcrowded jails, including eliminating cash bail for some minor crimes.

Bottoms was widely praised for her leadership during the initial round of racial justice protests last summer, but her relationship with Atlanta police officers soured last June when she immediately called for the firing of a police officer who had shot and killed an unarmed man in a Wendy’s parking lot.

Morale in the department plummeted, accelerating retirements and leaving Atlanta with 400 fewer officers than the department’s authorized force of 2,046. According to data collected by the city auditor, 341 officers left the force last year, while the city was able to hire just 116.

With some evening newscasts here now devoting entire 30-minute broadcasts to what they bill a “city in crisis” due to crime, a growing number of Republican lawmakers are rallying around those Buckhead residents who are pressing to secede.

Last month, state Rep. Todd Jones (R), who represents parts of north Georgia, introduced legislation that would initiate a study of the matter, the first step toward a possible referendum as early as November 2022. In an interview, Jones said Buckhead residents should be to decide their own futures because Bottoms needs to be held accountable for her decisions, including the partial elimination of cash bail.

“This was a ‘no penalty, we are going to arrest you and release you’ policy,” Jones said. “And I think the leadership in Atlanta went too far and did not back their public safety professionals.”

“What we are seeing in Atlanta is people who quite often have a connection to one another, who don’t know how to resolve conflict and are pulling out their guns and shooting,” Bottoms said. “You are having people emerging with depression, anxiety, and they’ve lost a loved one and are out of work, and that has created the most unfortunate convergence of factors. And I believe that is what we are seeing playing out on our streets.”

Crime would continue in Buckhead, even if it were to become its own municipality, she said.

“Even if you build a wall around the new city, it will not stop crime,” Bottoms said.

So far this year, the police zone that includes much of Buckhead has experienced a 40 percent increase in homicides, a 39 percent hike in robberies and a 64 percent spike in car thefts, according to city statistics.

Some of the crimes have been especially horrific, including the death of a 7-year-old girl who was hit by a stray bullet while Christmas shopping with her family in December.

On May 15, just two blocks from Weaver’s townhouse, three bystanders, including a 71-year-old man, were shot and wounded in front of Buckhead’s Home Depot after a fight at a nearby apartment complex spilled out into the store parking lot.

Two days later, a man was shot and killed in the bathroom of a neighboring nightclub, even though an off-duty police officer was stationed at the club, according to city leaders. And in late May a homeless man attacked and attempted to rape a teacher in broad daylight as she was entering her Buckhead housing complex, according to local media reports.

Residents have also been incensed by a surge in nuisance crimes, including drag racing and unlicensed street vendors, referred to as “water boys.”

“Over the past 20 years, the crime has become much more public and much more egregious,” said Brinkley Dickerson, a community leader in northwest Buckhead where some yards have a half-dozen signs advertising the various security systems that protect their homes.

“There is a saying in our neighborhood: If you see a policeman, you should stop and offer directions because he is lost,” Dickerson said.

He remains undecided on whether Buckhead should form its own municipality. But White, of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, said new residents are joining the campaign each day.

“These people are saying, ‘We are filing for divorce, and our decision is final,’ ” White said.

'Carving up our city'

In a sign that White’s effort has gained momentum, a group of Atlanta-area civic leaders announced May 25 that they are forming a group to oppose the secession campaign.

Linda Klein, a former president of the American Bar Association and co-director of Committee for a United Atlanta, said the group hopes to persuade Buckhead residents that they should instead channel their frustrations into this year’s mayoral and city council elections.

“We agree that something that needs to be done to address this [crime] crisis, and it is a crisis, but carving up our city is not the answer,” said Klein, adding that a new “Buckhead City” would also have to establish its own schools, renegotiate contracts with public transit agencies and perhaps even have to find a reliable source of public water.

According to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, if Buckhead were to become its own city, it would be 74 percent White, and its residents would have a median income of $140,000. The proposed Buckhead City would also sap 40 percent of Atlanta’s property wealth. The population of the remaining Atlanta would be 59 percent Black — up from 50 percent — and the median household income would drop to $52,000 from $60,000, the Journal-Constitution concluded.

The loss of Buckhead’s tax base would make it even more difficult for Atlanta to fund public safety measures — including hiring more police — a point not lost on residents of the south side of the city, such s Jason Dozier.

Last spring, it took police more than 30 minutes to respond to a call that a man had been shot and killed in front of his home in the community of Mechanicsville, Dozier said. He worries police are increasingly indifferent to violent crime.

Dozier said that residents in his neighborhood want the same thing those in Buckhead do and that the best way to achieve that is by uniting to push for new approaches to fighting crime throughout the city. He notes that even with Buckhead, Atlanta accounts for only about 8 percent of the population of the greater metropolitan region.

“A Buckhead secession only exasperates a problem that has been there for decades.” said Dozier, who is Black. “These are regional problems, and it’s harder to find a regional solution to these issues when you have so much fracturing across the region.”

Michael Owens, co-director at the Politics of Policing Lab at Emory University, said Buckhead’s effort to “de-annex” itself from Atlanta is similar to other cityhood movements in the region, including the 2005 decision by Sandy Springs to break away from Fulton County to form its own municipality and police force.

Since then, a handful of other Atlanta-area communities have also attempted to establish their independence, to mixed success. Like Buckhead, many of the movements have racial undertones.

In 2018, voters in one predominantly White section of Stockbridge, a majority-Black southern suburb of Atlanta, narrowly rejected a referendum to break away and form their own municipality.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that GOP legislators have also introduced proposal that would allow four communities in suburban Cobb County to study forming their own governments, which comes after Black women won three of five seats on the county commission in last year’s elections.

The cityhood movement has also resurfaced in other regions of the South, including when 54 percent of residents who lived in a predominantly White neighborhood of Baton Rouge voted to break away from that city. Residents there are now attempting to form their own city, St. George, amid a dispute over school funding.

“So many of the arguments for cityhood — they sure sound similar to me to many of the efforts to prevent desegregation” in the 1950s and 1960s, Owens said. “They say, ‘Oh, there is going to be more crime,’ or ‘Oh, we are going to share our tax dollars with those people over there.’ ”

Yet Quent Jordan, a Black resident of Buckhead’s Broadview Place, said he will probably support a new Buckhead City because he is tired of hearing gunfire in what was once considered to be one Atlanta’s safest neighborhoods.

“We shouldn’t be focused on race. We should be focused on protecting each other as human beings,” said Jordan, who moved into the neighborhood two years ago. “Buckhead really needs to be cleaned up, and there needs to be more police officers to make this place safer.”

Weaver, who is White, said she believes her neighborhood is safer now that residents have united to fight crime themselves. But she said she would probably oppose the move to become a municipality, saying it would be unfair to the rest of the city. Instead, she is optimistic that the trauma of 2020 will eventually pass, leading to a downward trend in crime across the city.

“I don’t think you can say this has been normal times,” Weaver said. “Hopefully as things get better as far as the pandemic goes and as we get back to normal, the leadership will tighten things back up again.”