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Chief Calls Atlanta Most Dangerous City in Nation

Police underreport crime routinely, he says in releasing a highly critical audit. The department is pushing for more funds.

February 21, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Chief Richard Pennington, releasing an audit of police practices Friday, warned that Atlanta is the most dangerous city in America and criticized his department for routinely underreporting crime.

The independent report covers the years prior to Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics through Pennington's tenure as chief, which began in 2002. It described "a broken police department" that, during a period when officials here were concerned about the city's image as a tourist destination, discarded crime records and improperly closed cases.

The city of Atlanta has a murder rate 520% higher than the national average, the report found, and residents -- especially African Americans -- are more likely to be victims of violent crime than are residents of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago or Los Angeles.

Pennington said he was shocked to find that Atlanta residents consider traffic a more serious problem than crime.

The chief's remarks come at a time when the department is making a major push for funding. Police here long have complained of insufficient manpower, saying they need to add 500 officers to its force of about 1,500 to adequately patrol the city. The starting salary of $32,783 forces many officers to take second jobs or leave the department entirely, Pennington has said.

The audit and Pennington's comments, officials said, may jolt the city into facing a long-neglected problem.

"Chief Pennington's kind of stepped out on a plank. This is the first time anyone's done this," said Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of Local 623 of the International Brotherhood of Police. "It's publicly admitting that, on paper at least, his department looks like a failure."

Appointed by Mayor Shirley Franklin, Pennington took over a department in which many officers were "looking for a savior to come in on a white horse," said Sue Carter Collins, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

Pennington was hailed as a reformer in New Orleans, which saw a sharp reduction in crime during the eight years he headed that police department. There too, Pennington commissioned an audit of the department by the New York-based firm Linder and Associates.

The Atlanta study, funded by the Atlanta Police Foundation, was released at a fundraiser Friday. Prominent among its findings was a substantial underreporting of crime in the city. Over the course of 2003, police failed to report 1,500 major crimes, the auditors found. Of police reports that were taken, more than 22,000 went missing in the department's records system.

"Crime statistics are deplorable. They're highly underutilized," said Robbie Friedmann, a professor of criminal justice of Georgia State University who is working with the department to improve record-keeping.

The report concluded that some of the poor record-keeping may have been a conscious effort to create the perception that crime rates were lower than they are -- and pointedly noted a "concerted effort" to improve Atlanta's chances to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, which the city did. Half of the officers surveyed by Pennington said crime reports are routinely changed to downgrade incidents.

In addition, according to the report, police work is often shoddy. One Atlanta resident interviewed said she once placed 14 calls to the 911 system to report a burglary and that it took police 68 minutes to arrive.

Kreher said that police find themselves scrambling to respond to emergencies in the face of chronic shortages of officers and equipment.

"We have to continually play catch-up with 911 calls," Kreher said. "We're not able to do any proactive police work. It's all reactive. If we don't have the cars, we can't put officers on the street."

Most jarring to many was the report's snapshot of violent crime in the city. In 2000, 2001 and 2002, Atlanta had the nation's highest rate of violent crime -- the combined total number of murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults per 100,000 residents. The statistics reflect crime within the city of Atlanta, home to about 10% of the metropolitan area's residents.

Franklin noted earlier this week that crime rates had improved since Pennington's arrival, with the rate of violent crime dropping an estimated 15% in 2003.

"Our success against crime is beginning to gain momentum, but it is a fragile momentum," she said. "We must seize this opportunity."

People approached in this city, frequently hailed as an up-and-coming international capital, seemed unfazed by the chief's announcement.

Clerical worker Patricia Williams, 52, said she simply did not believe it. "I don't think that we're any worse than anywhere else," she said. "I think we're better than a lot."

Justin Nyquist, 21, visiting from Tampa, Fla., said he did not feel insecure walking through Atlanta. "I feel safe," he said. "I feel more safe on foot than I do in my car, because there's so much traffic."

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Times researcher Rennie Sloan contributed to this report.

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