Georgia Today: The Georgia crime expert who became a shooting victim
The Atlanta mayoral election is headed to a runoff. Whoever ultimately takes the top job will face a sharp increase in crime in the city that's accelerated during the pandemic. On the latest Georgia Today podcast, we hear about the impact of the crime wave on communities across Atlanta, and what's driving it, with a Georgia criminologist who himself became a shooting victim.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Atlanta voters headed to the polls Tuesday to vote for the city's next mayor. A whopping 14 candidates were vying to succeed Keisha Lance Bottoms, who declined to seek reelection this year. With such a crowded field, the election is now headed to a runoff. Whoever ultimately takes the top job faces what Bottoms herself failed to do: tame a steep increase in crime that accelerated with the pandemic and the question of how to improve policing in the city.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: This year has been a challenging year across the country. When our communities aren't safe or when they don't feel safe, nothing else really matters.
Steve Fennessy: Today on the podcast, we go beyond the headlines and political talking points to hear what's driving crime during this pandemic and why. My guest is Volkan Topalli. He's a professor of criminology at Georgia State University. And earlier this year, Topalli also found himself in the middle of a crime that he's built a career studying. Welcome, Volkan.
Volkan Topalli: Hi, how are you?
Steve Fennessy: I'm doing well, thanks. I think it's important to mention here that what's happening in Atlanta is mirroring a national trend. From 2019 to 2020, according to the CDC, homicides in the U.S. went up 30%, which is the biggest increase in something like 100 years, but as alarming as that increase is, here in Atlanta, we saw an almost 60% surge in homicides over the same time period. So what's going on here?
Volkan Topalli: I think there are a number of things going on. We've got the pandemic and at the same time, you've got this interaction with the Black Lives Matter movement, which I think of as equivalent to kind of a police accountability movement at the same time. Those things happening in society change the pattern of behaviors for victims, for offenders and for citizens overall. So the way we go about our daily lives has changed drastically over the last two years. And those changes, it was inevitable that they would lead to some sorts of changes in crime.
Steve Fennessy: Well, before we connect the dots between those things. Talk a little bit about the kind of work you do because you're a criminologist, but the way you approach your work is is quite unique, right?
Volkan Topalli: Yeah. My work is quasi-ethnographic. What that means is I spend a lot of time talking to people, and the focus of my work has been on violent crime and urban crime policy. I spend most of my time talking to active, non-institutionalized offenders on the streets of Atlanta and sometimes in my office as well. So these are these are individuals who are engaged in sort of the most dangerous kinds of crimes that we think of: drug dealing, robbery, drug robbery, individuals who rob other drug dealers, for example, carjacking, things like that.
Steve Fennessy: So you're talking to the people who are doing the crimes. How do you find them?
Volkan Topalli: Well, I have a recruiter who is a former offender himself, and we usually start the process with them, approaching these individuals and offering them the opportunity to have a conversation with me. I have grants from the National Science Foundation that have supported this kind of research. We pay individuals for their time.
Steve Fennessy: As the pandemic hit in early 2020, sort of what was your take on on where crime was in Atlanta and at that time, where did you see it going as we started to sort of contract our lives in such a dramatic way?
Volkan Topalli: The crime rate at the time was sort of flattening out a bit. You know, the conversations that I was having with offenders at that time, you know, I started asking them questions like, you know, “Are you finding victims the same way? Are you conducting your offenses the same way? Are you operating in the same neighborhoods in the same way?” And, you know, offenders are very hip to what's going on. They adapt very, very quickly when things change, and they started noticing that patterns of human behavior were changing very early on. They realized that people were staying home a lot more. They realized people weren't driving around a lot more. And so they started to adapt their behavior patterns actually rather quickly. And I think that you can see in those changes in the crime rate, the crimes like homicide, for example, went up, domestic violence went up and we also saw some crimes go down, like a lot of property crimes decreased, for example.
Steve Fennessy: So why were property crimes specifically going down?
Volkan Topalli: It’s interesting. The reason for that is probably because more people are at home during the day than than previously. I think a lot of people have this sort of stereotype that burglaries happen at night while you're sleeping upstairs, you know, the burglar sneaks into your home and they're, you know, stealing things downstairs. That's actually not the case. Most burglars happen during the daytime because people are at work while working people are now at home. And so there aren't that many vulnerable homes anymore to engage in burglary and I think reduce the amount of burglaries that we have.
Steve Fennessy: As we started to understand the scope of the pandemic, what kind of predictions were you making to yourself or among other criminologists about the impact that this might have on crime rates?
Volkan Topalli: So whenever there's a large-scale event like this, what you find is that scholars spend a lot of time speculating on what what can or could or should happen, and they base a lot of that on things that they've seen in the past, you know, something like a hurricane. It could be a terrorist attack.
Steve Fennessy: Sept. 11.
Volkan Topalli: Yeah, 9/11, for example. You get these immediate, widespread changes in the patterns of behavior. And sometimes they're good things, like the Olympics. For example, the Olympics changed the city in a lot of ways. We got rid of public housing in the mid-2000s, and that had an effect on crime.
Steve Fennessy: How?
Volkan Topalli: There's an initial disruption to criminal patterns, right? And those shifts, those immediate shifts do have an effect on crime because they disrupt the patterns that offenders are used to. Offenders are used to standing on the same corner, selling out of the same house, you know, that kind of thing. But one of the things I was really concerned about was that the offenders are not going to quit offending, right? So the demand for their services and their demand for money is not going to change. So you might be able to shift crime temporarily, but eventually it's going to pop up again. And the problem is it pops up in places that the police may not be ready for. Police departments do a lot of kind of hot spots prevention work. They look at where the 911 calls are. They see a lot of 911 calls in one area. If they'll go to that area, they'll hit it hard for a few weeks and they'll, you know, they'll — they’ll remove crime temporarily in that area, but is going to move somewhere else because you haven't dealt with the root causes of crime.
Steve Fennessy: So in the city of Atlanta in 2019, there were, I think, 99 homicides. In 2020, that number went up to 157.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: Just three weeks to go and 2020 will go down as a year violent crime ravaged Atlanta and other major cities across our country.
Steve Fennessy: Is there a way to sort of say, well, what happened in the pandemic is leading people to become more desperate to do more desperate things?
Volkan Topalli: There’s two sources of violent crime. A robbery that goes wrong turns into a homicide. A carjacking that goes wrong, turns into a homicide. And then there are crimes that are really driven by frustration, disagreements, beefs that individuals have with one another. And I think you had a little bit of both of those things happening at the same time as a consequence of how the pandemic was changing patterns of activity. We had people losing their jobs. We had people who are home a lot more. They were interacting with each other a lot more. They weren't distracted by being at school. They weren't distracted by being at work. Those beefs, those — those interactions probably escalated to violence during the pandemic in ways that they would not have previous to a pandemic.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: People on edge, out of work, struggling as never before. Homicides up 48% over last year. In Police Zone 2, which includes Buckhead, murders are up 33%, from six murders to eight. By contrast, in Police Zone 3, which includes Southeast Atlanta, murders are up 79%.
Steve Fennessy: Was there a moment for you, Volkan, whether it was something you read about or a session you had with — with an offender that made you step back and say, OK, this is going to be different?
Volkan Topalli: When the pandemic hit we started hearing the offenders talk more about the fact that there weren't nearly as many people walking around outside as they used to be, that everyone's at home and that that was a real frustration for people who are engaged in burglary. A lot of these guys are living kind of day-to-day lives and that they felt that that was problematic and I thought to myself, “If this keeps going, we're going to have trouble,” especially in the summer — warm summer months when you have so many more people because it's hot.
Steve Fennessy: Well, and also in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, we have George Floyd protests. We have the Rayshard Brooks killing here in Atlanta, and then we have Secoriea Turner’s shooting surrounding the protest of the Rayshard Brooks shooting by police.
[News tape] FOX5: As you can see here, behind me, a very tense situation. National Guard troops are here. Tear gas has just been deployed. I can feel it. You know, all of us here can. And we are just about seven minutes into that nine o'clock curfew.
Steve Fennessy: Talk a little bit about the police reaction and how how sort of equipped they were to deal with all of this at once.
Volkan Topalli: I think, you know, there are two theories about it. One is that the police felt that they were put upon, that they were not being respected, that they weren't being appreciated. You know, they had labor issues that they were dealing with and that they pulled back allowed offenders to kind of run wild. That's one theory. I actually think a lot of what was taking place there was it was a drain on resources. You're taking officers out of their normal routines where they're driving around neighborhoods, observing who's engaged in what kind of behavior on the streets, and now you're putting them out there to manage and monitor protests. And I think that it's stretched policing resources, then we weren't using the police in the same way that we had before. So I think that there is a relationship there between the protests and some of the uptick in crime, but I don't think it's that police officers decided that they didn't care about the population anymore.
Steve Fennessy: Well, we talked about the police, you know, by definition, you know, needing to react to crime. And you also mentioned there's a need to address root causes to crime. Is that happening at all?
Volkan Topalli: You know, what I see is that we have an extremely complex issue, which is crime, which most people have very simplistic notions about, and that makes for bad policymaking. So I think policymakers know that the public don't really understand how root causes work. And so it causes them to engage in a lot of sloganeering. And what we really need is a well-thought-out plan that addresses short-, medium- and long-term issues with violence. So the short-term stuff is mostly the kinds of things that the police and community members can work on. It's a lot more tactical, strategic kinds of things.
Steve Fennessy: Such as?
Volkan Topalli: Changing the way we do police patrols, changing, doing hot spots in a much more responsive kind of a way. But I think the zoning regulations, liquor licenses, the issues that we have with kind of quote unquote “clubs” that exist in the city, that's kind of problematic as well. That's a much more medium-term solution. You need to be thinking about the weather. I mean, we do policing differently in the summer than we do in the wintertime. And then there's the long-term stuff. And the long-term stuff is really what's frustrating because everyone talks a big game on the long-term stuff, but it rarely gets executed the way that you want. And there are a couple of reasons for that. One is these are plans that are being executed by politicians. Nothing against politicians; I think what they do is is actually kind of amazing, and they put up with a lot of criticism. But the fact of the matter is that they work on two- and four- and sometimes six-year, you know, schedules. And so when people talk about, “Hey, I'm going to put another 500, 700 800 police on the streets,” well, they don't just grow on trees. You got to train them, you've got to hire them, you've got to pay them. It's very hard to argue for those kinds of solutions with individuals who say, “Hey, I have to produce something right now. People need something right now.” You really have to think not just of the short-term effects, but which are tactical. But you have to think about the long-term effects, right? And I think that we tend to focus on short-term, tactical kinds of solutions without thinking about what the long-term unintended consequences of these patterns can be. It's very hard to argue for those kinds of solutions with individuals who say, “Hey, I have to produce something right now. People need something right now.”
Steve Fennessy: Volkan, I want to bring this to something very, very personal for you. And back to this day in May of this year, when when the stuff that you were studying came home for you in a very visceral way. Can you talk about what happened?
Volkan Topalli: Sure. So I'm getting a lot of attention these days as the criminologist who got shot. The interesting thing is that, you know, the work that I've been doing for the last 21 years where I go into these neighborhoods and I talk to offenders. This was the kind of stuff that used to make my wife very nervous and make a lot of my colleagues nervous. They always said, “Oh, you know, this is kind of dangerous work that you're doing.” In this case. What happened in May was I was on my way to the hardware store to buy some mulch, and it was May 15th. And this is the shooting that took place at the Peninsula apartments and Home Depot on May 15th. I literally was just there to buy mulch.
Steve Fennessy: So you went to Home Depot?
Volkan Topalli: Yeah. And so when I drove in off Piedmont, I saw there were a lot of young people out there hanging around that apartment complex, hanging around the parking lot outside of the hardware store, and I knew that there was some big party going on. And you know, my my criminologist antennae kind of went up and said, “Oh boy, I hope there's some cops around here because we can have some hot interactions.” You know, I kind of drove through the crowd and parked my car, went in, got my potting soil. And as I was waiting, I heard four shots go off and you know, we stayed in the store and saw some young people running away from that area. I got out of line. I took my phone to call 911. And I stepped out just in front, you know, by the flowers, and started speaking to someone on 911. They were asking me for address information and then the gunfire erupted again.
[News tape] 11ALIVE: Atlanta police say a fight escalated among a large group at the lobby of the Peninsula at Buckhead apartments then spilled outside, leading to the gunshots.
Volkan Topalli: By the time I got out there, the individuals who were involved were driving out and they stopped their car. They pulled their guns out and started firing kind of in random directions, and I got caught in the crossfire.
Steve Fennessy: So what happens when the very thing you've spent your life researching as an objective scientific observer actually happens to you personally? That's what Volkan Topalli experienced after he had been shot. That's next. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today.
You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Georgia State University criminologist Volkan Topalli. When we left off, Topalli was shopping for gardening supplies at the Buckhead Home Depot back in May, when he felt a sharp pain in his arm.
Volkan Topalli: And about five or six minutes later, APD showed up and I walked out holding my arm. And so, you know, they put a tourniquet on me and I rode the ambulance to Grady with one of the kids that got shot at the party as well. Spent the night in the hospital. Called my wife from the ambulance, told her what had happened, and she handled it like a champ. I had my surgery the next morning.
Steve Fennessy: So her concerns about you potentially getting getting shot at one of these neighborhoods where you're out talking to offenders, that that wasn't the problem. The problem was you going to a Home Depot in Buckhead?
Volkan Topalli: Exactly right. When I called my wife, I said, You know, she before I even said anything, I was in the ambulance and she said, “Could you pick up one more bag of potting soil?” And I said, "That's not going to happen. I'm on my way to the hospital.”
Steve Fennessy: What went through your mind when you realized you had been shot?
Volkan Topalli: You know, I was just annoyed, angry. At the time, I wasn't scared.
Steve Fennessy: Having this happen to you, what effect or impact does it have on how you view your work?
Volkan Topalli: It’s been a source of consternation for people who want a certain — who — who want to see crime a certain way in Atlanta. And what I will say is I am not afraid of crime. I don't walk out my door every day paranoid that someone's going to shoot me because I've been shot in the arm. I didn't, you know, install a bunch of cameras around my house or anything like that. I'm a 55-year-old white guy who lives in a nice neighborhood. And probably because I've spent my entire life studying this and understanding the statistics, I know that what happened to me was totally anomalous. I did get shot, and I know people will say, “Well, look, see what happened? Like even a guy who lives in a nice neighborhood, you know who can get shot? That means anybody can get shot.” And of course, that's true. Anybody can die in a car accident. Anybody can get hit by lightning. But that doesn't mean that you're likely to get hit by lightning. If you're thinking about this from a kind of a public health perspective, you’ve got to be looking at, you know, who's really at risk here and who's not. And to be honest with you, the people who are at risk here are young and Black and male. And so, you know, for me, it was “wrong place, wrong time;” if you're young, Black and male, every place is the wrong place, every time is the wrong time. I've used this as a teaching tool in class. I think it's important to have that sober kind of attitude about it. That doesn't mean that uptick in crime and homicide isn't important. It's very important. We do need to address it.
Steve Fennessy: We’re heading into a runoff for the Atlanta mayor. What's going to be the biggest obstacle for them when it comes to addressing the crime issue in Atlanta?
Volkan Topalli: There are two big obstacles. I think the first one is they have to find a way to communicate with citizens what the solutions to violence need to be in America. We have a tendency to think that the police control crime and is just not the case. We need much bigger, much broader vision of what policing is, especially how we train police officers. We need solutions that are short-term, medium-term and long-term. They need to be communicated in very plain English. I think it's a real challenge for politicians who get 30-second commercials and debates where they don't get to go deep into the policy.
Steve Fennessy: It’s easy to kind of lose hope in discussions such as these. But is there a sign for hope if you look at other communities, if you look within our own community, what are things that are happening that point the way?
Volkan Topalli: Yeah, I actually think there are. One of the things I will say about the pandemic is that it did change patterns and it did. I think it is at the core of why we're probably having this crime uptick, but we're seeing this year compared to last year is that although the rate of violent crime is increasing, it's increasing much slower than it was last year. And for criminologists and economists and public health people, that's always a really good sign that what you're leading up to is an eventual downturn, and it looks like we're heading in the right direction. People have adapted to this new reality, and that includes the police, which — we’re smarter about — about crime. We're directing services toward those — for example, domestic violence, for example, is getting more services right now. I think it's really important that the Biden administration has — has dedicated about 70 or 80 million dollars to the city of Atlanta, I mean, $360 billion for the country overall. That's a gigantic amount of money, though. One of the things I'll be very, very curious to hear from the candidates is what do they expect to do with those resources, because you could waste that money or you could do a lot of fantastic things. I think that should be a key issue to be asking them.
Steve Fennessy: What would you do with it?
Volkan Topalli: Well, I would do violence interruption programs at a much more large scale than what we've done before. These are programs that have worked really well in places like Chicago and Boston.
Steve Fennessy: What is that, exactly?
Volkan Topalli: So violence interruption is working at the ground level in communities with individuals who are well known among community members and in particular among the younger crime-involved, justice-involved individuals that are the most problematic folks. And what they do is they identify these beefs — these conflicts that I talked about before — and interrupt them before they turn into retaliation.
[News tape] ABC 7 Chicago: This afternoon, the violence interrupters converge on Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood. "This is part of our effort to be a holistic partner in the community to get out in front of violence." The area has seen an uptick in violent crime. So they put boots on the ground for a mass canvass shooting response, working with Chicago police and the community in city neighborhoods for the last three years to bring their public health approach to violence through one-on-one engagement.
Volkan Topalli: They’ve got legitimacy on the streets. These are individuals that people would actually listen to, and they work really hard to sort of direct them away from retaliation towards something that's more positive. It's very work-intensive. It takes a lot of resources, but it does work when you put the resources in. The — the key is making it sustainable. I think this level of funding is the kind of funding where we can actually make it sustainable.
Steve Fennessy: The Atlanta Election Day results are in, and none of the 14 candidates for mayor garnered 50% of the vote. That means the top two finishers, Felicia Moore and Andre Dickens, will face each other in a runoff on Nov. 30th. Both Moore and Dickens, who each sit on the City Council, have listed public safety as their No. 1 priority. Among her ideas, Moore says she would dispatch unarmed first responders to help people who are experiencing homelessness or behavioral or mental health crises. She also wants to establish a tip line for officers to anonymously report other cops and to release body cam footage and records within 72 hours of a police shooting. For his part, Dickens says he'd also reassign unarmed officials to non-emergencies, plus redeploy some cops to shopping centers, gas stations, clubs and bars, and hire more officers to fill gaps on the force. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cook. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org, or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!