Officers patrolling Buckhead have been instructed to make shoplifting a low priority by commanders citing an officer shortage and an uptick in more dangerous crimes.
Other local police forces — including Dunwoody’s, which deals with a lot of shoplifting at Perimeter Mall — say they are not considering a similar policy.
Atlanta Police Department officers in Buckhead’s Zone 2 will not be dispatched to most shoplifting calls unless an officer is available, and retailers will be instructed to file a report over the phone, said Zone 2 commander Maj. Barry Shaw.
“Our goal is to be as efficient and effective as possible with our limited resources,” Shaw said. “Keeping police officers in service and available to respond to crimes in progress involving stolen autos, theft from vehicles, and violent crimes is our priority.”
One on-duty car will be designated to handle shoplifting calls and can respond if they are not preoccupied, Shaw said. If available, an overtime officer specifically assigned to handle larceny calls will be dispatched, but it may not be immediate.
Police departments in Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Dunwoody said they have not considered making a similar change. A major destination in Dunwoody is Perimeter Mall and other retailers around it, which attract shoplifting, but Police Chief Billy Grogan said the department has not considered making enforcement a low priority.
“In fact, we want shoplifters to know if they get arrested in Dunwoody for shoplifting, they will go to jail,” Grogan said in an email.
A statement from the Atlanta Police Department said that shoplifting crimes, “which can be for something as simple as an item of clothing,” can tie up an officer for more than hour.
“Chief [Erika] Shields expects that the time that officers save not responding to shoplifting calls will be better spent patrolling, which is in keeping with her priority to focus on reducing violent crime throughout the city,” the statement said.
Buckhead has seen an uptick recently in crimes that pose a safety risk, including stolen vehicles, theft from vehicles and robberies, especially in south Buckhead, Shaw said. Officers’ focus will instead be on responding to those crimes and violent crime in general, he said.
“Our goal is very clear, purposeful and straightforward: We must get a handle on criminals who are comfortable engaging in straight lawlessness,” APD’s statement said.
The change only applies to Buckhead’s zone, Zone 2, which is more affected by shoplifting than other areas in Atlanta due to the amount of retailers and cars in the area, Shaw said. Buckhead is also farther drive to the Atlanta City Detention Center, where officers take offenders, than most other areas, he said.
Shoplifting arrest are rare because offenders normally escape before police arrive, and often result in a misdemeanor charge with little or no jail time, Shaw said.
“There is not punishment associated with it. We’ve got make sure we’re putting the right priority on this,” he said.
Police will also encourage retailers to develop a security plan so they have to rely less on the police department, the statement said. Shaw noted that big retailers, like Lenox Square mall, have their own security guards to address shoplifting.
Shaw would prefer retailers try to deter shoplifting by installing cameras or hiring uniformed guards, he said.
“We’re begging retailers to up security,” he said.
Lenox Square and the Buckhead Business Association did not respond to requests for comment.
The department has been communicating this change to retailers and has discussed it with major stores, Shaw said.
“We ask retailers to be patient as we attempt to re-focus our efforts on calls that present a greater risk to safety,” the statement said.
Sam Massell, the president of the Buckhead Coalition, a group of 100 CEOs and other leaders in the community, including some retailers, said he understands why the department made the change.
“The bottom line is that they have to hire more officers. There is a real problem here,” Massell said. “I don’t fault them for thinking outside of the box.”
Massell suggested the city look into a way to legally require retailers to take steps to curb shoplifting.
“We require them to have sprinklers. Maybe we should require public safety officers or other measures,” he said.