WHAT a difference a month makes. Or does it?

A few short weeks ago, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington and Mayor Shirley Franklin were working overtime to insist that residents’ concerns over crime were overblown. “The city is safer now than it has been in decades,” the Mayor callously announced when the brutal murder of bartender John Henderson mobilized residents to demand more police on the streets.

In another scolding published in the wake of that crime, Chief Pennington insisted that, “we have enough resources to deal with it,” “it” meaning crime (making him possibly the first Chief of Police in half a century to make such a claim). He suggested that citizens were simply “perceiving” crime more intensely now that the Internet enabled people to tell each other about crimes that were occurring in different parts of the city.

OOPS. The Internet certainly did that. It also enabled residents to compare notes on what they were seeing on the streets versus what the police department was posting on its website. It allowed them to ponder the often-craven ways the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Creative Loafing work with the Mayor to dismiss concerns about home invasions, like the schmaltzy two-step in which the AJC published a highly selective study of crime statistics one Sunday and Mayor Franklin, a mere four days later, published an editorial in the paper praising the study and using it to bludgeon residents’ concerns about home invasions.

The Internet interrupted this closed-loop system so abruptly that officials and reporters are now scrambling in its wake. Fourteen days after Chief Pennington told reporter Tim Eberly that the Atlanta Police Department didn’t need more resources to keep the city from “becoming less safe,” and one day after the AJC published its “study” showing select crimes in certain places were down, and three days before the mayor thanked the paper for showing the protesters that the city didn’t need more police officers, the AJC wedged in another article reporting that Chief Pennington also said “the city will soon need 2,400 officers.”

That is 785 more officers than the current number, 1,615. Or, to put it another way, a 48% increase in the number of police on the streets.

So according to Chief Pennington, Atlanta either has enough police on the streets right now to combat crime, or it needs to increase the size of its force by 48%. “Soon.”

PERHAPS in order to back away from this absurd and bizarre game of numbers, Pennington has now announced the formation of a task force to investigate burglaries of flat-screen televisions. Or perhaps he is really reaching out to the public.

(Shirley Franklin, who cannot run for mayor again and already has one foot out the door and firmly planted, no doubt, in some half dozen lucrative consulting contracts, doesn’t need to come up with plans to fight crime anymore and has thus said nothing.)

I sincerely applaud any effort Chief Pennington is willing to make to do something about burglary, or any other crime. And I personally think that most of the problem of not addressing criminal behavior lies with the courts, not in the police department. But there’s an element of minimizing the truly threatening nature of these home invasions by creating a “task force to investigate the burglaries of flat-screen televisions.” Why not a task force to investigate the invasions of homes?

This minimizing of crime is not incidental: it is of a piece with everything else that has been said to the citizens of Atlanta, and especially to crime victims and activists, by the Mayor and the Chief of Police since John Henderson was murdered.

So before anyone is permitted to shift the conversation to using DNA to protect television ownership, I think Chief Pennington needs to change the tone of the conversation itself. There needs to be unambiguous acknowledgment of the real problem. It’s not about “property”: it’s about the real danger created by numbly sociopathic or drug-crazed criminals who are kicking in the doors of people’s homes. It’s about never feeling safe because you know there are criminals stalking your neighborhood, waiting for you to leave for work in the morning, and wondering if your wife is going to be safe at home after the car’s not in the driveway at 9:05 a.m.

Chief Pennington needs to acknowledge this instead of playing it down by talking about property theft, even if that’s what the Mayor and many (not all) journalists seem to be trying to do.

I’M certain there are things I don’t know about Pennington, but he did have a reputation as a reformer, someone who did a great deal to clean up the force in New Orleans. I want to believe that he really wants 2,400 cops on the streets and that he believes that every home invasion (home invasion necessarily precedes ripping the flat-screen from the wall) is an intense, personal, violent crime.

Behind statistics there are always intentions. NYPD Chief William Bratton intended to lower crime, so he used crime statistics to solve crimes, not to deny their existence in the newspaper.

Bratton didn’t lecture people about the difference between “violent” and “non-violent” home break-ins or the “victimless” nature of turn-style jumping: he instituted CompStat, which, if you think about it, works precisely because it got the police thinking about property crimes as potential predictors of future violent crime.

Exactly the opposite is happening in Atlanta. But it’s not too late for Pennington to turn that message around.

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