What’s the matter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution?

In the last year, the residents of Atlanta stood up and declared that they do not want their city to be a place known for crime, where murders and muggings are taken in stride.  They declared that one murder, one home invasion, is one too many.  They partnered with the police — ignoring the headline-grabbing anti-cop types who perennially try to sow divisiveness.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution stubbornly failed to grasp the significance of these events.  They mocked the anti-crime activists and denied the crime problem with a scorn they would not dream of directing at other types of community leaders or social movements.  They sought out the usual political operatives to feed them quotes denying the seriousness of crime.

They didn’t understand that the public had long-ago grown tired of these condescending tactics.  The newspaper of record especially didn’t understand that the internet gave citizens powerful new ways to see precisely how much their lives and pocketbooks were being affected by crime — whether it was sharing information about the ten-time recidivist standing in their driveway or finding out how many other people got put on hold when calling 911.

Atlantans began to demand a healthier, saner, safer status quo.  They set out to change the culture of the city in ways that will benefit every single person, from the well-off to the poor to criminals themselves (for criminals are not helped by a system that allows them to destroy their own lives).

Now, less than a year later, anti-crime activism has brought about a sea change in the political culture of the city.  Several candidates are running in this election on solid platforms of public safety — notably Adam Brackman, a leader in the volunteer court-watching movement that pressures judges to remove repeat offenders from the streets.

Every politician in this election is on notice that they dismiss public concern about crime at their peril.

And by the time the next election rolls around, I suspect that some of the judges who are failing to uphold the law and siding with offenders rather than law-abiding citizens will be folding up their black robes.  Pressure on the courts, and pressuring the city to end the police furloughs, has already set the city on the path to reducing crime, though it will be a long road.

So why did the AJC choose this moment to retreat to the “crime is a perception thing” debate again?

“People are scared,” said Kyle Keyser, founder of Atlantans Together Against Crime. The group formed in January, in a near-spontaneous reaction to a perceived crime wave that crested with the killing of a restaurant worker near Grant Park.

“Near-spontaneous.”  “Perceived crime wave.”  “Crested.”  Could the reporter wedge in a few more diminutives?  I lived in that neighborhood for decades, and in reality, crime has always been unacceptably high there.  It would be a lot higher if residents weren’t paying through the teeth for security patrols and motion detectors and cameras inside and outside of their homes, a veritable self-imposed police state that reflects the failure of city leaders and especially judges to behave as if all crime matters.

So why is the newspaper still hammering away at the theme that it is the perception of crime that is the problem?  Even when they acknowledge that crime is up alarmingly, from a base rate that is alarming enough, they feel the need to remind people that such things are normal, you know, in urban places:

Residential burglaries are a key component of the property crime category. But while all property crime decreased, reports of residential break-ins grew by 65 percent from 2004 to 2008. This year alone, home burglaries in southeast Atlanta are up 52 percent.

Larcenies have steadily decreased, as well. But thefts from automobiles, a frequent grievance of in-town residents, rose 30 percent in five years.

Criminologists say a high crime rate is inevitable in Atlanta, where widespread poverty and an influx of commuters, conventioneers and tourists create an atmosphere conducive to illicit activity.

Yeah, that pickpocket’s trade show sure brought a bunch of pickpockets to town.  The problem isn’t poverty: it’s profound social dysfunction, and the primary targets of crime are not conventioneers in the security-heavy downtown business district but residents going about their lives.  Some criminologists will say anything, however, in the service of rejecting legitimate worries about criminal behavior:

How well a police department performs its most basic job — preventing crime — can be assessed three ways, said Robert Friedmann, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University.

“One is the numbers,” he said. “Two is the numbers. And three is perception.”

Is it?  “Perception” is criminologist-code for “hysteria.”  The argument that Atlanta’s crime problem is merely the “perception” of paranoid whiners was rejected by the public months ago.  Yet here comes the AJC, once again, scolding people for failing to lower their expectations to meet the “inevitable” reality of violent urban crime.

The reporter doesn’t stop there, however.  The end of this article, an article that purports to investigate “dysfunction in the police department,”  is instead dedicated to dismissing the seriousness of John Henderson’s murder and by extension the legitimacy of the entire anti-crime movement.

He does this by claiming, again, that John Henderson’s death was probably just “an accident,” foolishly valued and misapprehended by those who reacted to it:

The case featured many archetypal elements of the high-profile urban crime story: the neighborhood’s historic poverty contrasted against the Standard’s hipster scene; the free-roaming young killers, possibly gang members; the overmatched police force, struggling to keep pace with crime. To many, the case seemed to be a metaphor that captured Atlanta as a growing threat.

Except it wasn’t.

It wasn’t?  It wasn’t what?  The bullet that entered John Henderson’s head was neither an archetype nor a metaphor nor a plot twist: it was a chunk of metal that ended an innocent man’s life, fired from a gun by malicious thugs who displayed murderous contempt for other people’s lives.  To point to the dead body of that young man and say “those who have reacted to this loss are making too much of a big deal about it: it’s just routine, the sort of thing that happens is the big city,” is utterly, starkly, reprehensible.

It smacks of telling people that if they’re “hipsters” who choose to live in-town, they must accept a certain body count among their friends and loved ones, and to complain about that is the real crime.  The reporter backs up this sleazy assertion by insisting that the murder wasn’t as bad as people thought.  Get it?  The murder wasn’t all that bad:

Much of what was reported about Henderson’s killing turned out to be false. He was not shot execution-style. Nor was he wounded four times. He was hit once in the leg during the robbery and once again in the head, maybe by accident, as the robbers fled. One of the bullets came from a handgun the robbers took from Henderson’s co-worker.

“He was hit.”  “Hit,” not shot, a softer word.  “Once in the leg during the robbery.”  Only once, not four times, so why complain about it?  “Once again in the head, maybe by accident.”  Accidentally shooting someone in the head?  What is motivating the AJC to keep bluntly denying the horror of this crime?

I’d interject here that this is not the way the AJC reported on Vernon Forrest’s death.  Forrest chased his robbers with his own gun.  He was no less a victim for it, and the AJC took the right line on that murder, as they did on that family’s demands for justice (as did the Chief and the Mayor, who leaped to action, in stark contrast to their response to Henderson’s murder).  And yet, even after finally doing the right thing, the AJC has now returned to Henderson’s murder to throw a little more dirt.

This is selective policing of the public’s reaction to a cold-blooded murder.  Cold-blooded, no matter where the killer was standing when he fired the bullet.  When you shoot a person through a door, you are as legally and morally as responsible for killing them as you would be if you stood over their body and fired the gun.

The reporter, not the public, is the one wallowing in metaphor and fiction here.  John Henderson is just as dead as he would be if the killing were expertly choreographed.  The public understands this.  They understand that adolescent killers waving guns are just as dangerous as — maybe more dangerous than — seasoned thugs who control their firing range.   Why is the AJC so obsessed with diminishing the responsibility of the killers in this case?  Why do they seem more outraged by the public reacting than by the killing itself?

[T]he area around the Standard was hardly unprotected before the robbery.

From 2:55 to 3:05 a.m., police dispatch records show, the officer assigned to the neighborhood was checking on a gas station at Memorial Drive and Hill Street — 500 feet from the Standard. The officer resumed patrol moments before the robbers smashed the bar’s door.

Short of standing guard at the Standard, it appears the officer could have done little more to prevent the crime.

“There’s a limit to how much officers can impact,” said Friedmann, the Georgia State criminologist. “If someone wants to commit a crime, they’ll commit a crime.”

Well, thank you for clearing that up.  Let’s just forget about it, then.  What’s the big fuss?  The police can’t be everywhere at all times.  This isn’t, like, The Matrix, dude.  So you should forget about complaining when your friends get gunned down.  It’s just life in the big city, after all.

And if it’s the right kind of crime, one involving a victim or location presumed immune from violence, news coverage often implies a broad menace, Friedmann said.

Memorial Drive is presumed immune to violence?  Since when?  Bartenders closing shop are presumed immune to violence?  Sometimes I think criminologists will say absolutely anything to whitewash the reality of crime.  Maybe Fridemann was quoted wildly out of context, because this makes absolutely no sense: he is saying that crime is omnipresent and unavoidable but that a bartender working late at night on Memorial Drive is an utterly unlikely potential victim of crime.  Say anything, in other words, so long as it ineluctably reinforces the conclusion that crime is just a “perception” problem:

“You have a story, people pay attention to it,” he said. “You don’t have a story, people don’t know about it, and it’s as if it didn’t happen.”

I speak fluent Hackademese, so let me try to translate.  Dr. Friedmann is saying that it’s not the murder that is the problem: it’s the fact that people made a big stinking deal about the murder that’s the problem.

Now, to mix things up, back to the reporter denying the severity of Henderson’s murder:

In this case, all that followed — protests over police furloughs, a property tax increase to put officers back to work full time, the “City Under Siege” media frenzy over later crimes — was based on inaccurate information provided by a police detective the day of Henderson’s killing.

Keyser now knows the story was exaggerated.

Does he?  I know Kyle Keyser, and he is committed to ignoring the media’s relentless claims that crime doesn’t matter — the reporter’s insinuation here flies in the face of Keyser’s message and actions.   Playing “gotcha” journalism with a person’s death is pretty ugly stuff.

Sadly, reports of John Henderson’s death were not exaggerated.  Thus, claiming that all that followed — a young man’s funeral, a city coming together to confront the problem of violent crime, more murders, more funerals — hinges on precisely how the gun was held when the bullet entered Henderson’s brain is setting up a straw-man of peculiarly grotesque intent.

The AJC really ought to be ashamed of peddling this type of underhanded opinion-mongering as news.   Nobody in touch with reality cares whether John Henderson was shot by somebody standing over him or shot through a door after being shot once already.  Nobody with a shred of decency would obsess over that distinction and conclude that public outrage over the murder and other crime is just “hype.”  Nor crack a joke about it, as the reporter does:

Pennington has a chance to try to turn the hype to his advantage, to convince Atlantans they’re safer than they think. On Tuesday, the chief is scheduled to address an annual breakfast sponsored by the police foundation.

The event’s theme: “Crime is toast.”

Get it?  Just stop worrying about crime, you ignorant hysterics, and it will all go away.

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