A new “adopt a judge” court-watching program has emerged from concerns about Buckhead crime, echoing strong complaints about Fulton County’s judicial system made by Police Chief Erika Shields at a Feb. 28 town hall at the Atlanta History Center.
Local discontent with Fulton County judges has simmered since last summer’s murder and robbery at the Capital City country club. In that case, a 17-year-old suspect was on the streets from a previous armed robbery conviction due to a controversial private probation order from Superior Court Judge Doris Downs.
More recently, residents and officials have complained about Fulton judges letting defendants free immediately without full knowledge of their criminal records – though the nature of the complaints vary.
Maj. Barry Shaw, commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 police patrol area, has voiced concern about the use of “signature bonds,” which is a pledge to show up for trial without any deposit. City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit of Buckhead’s District 8 recently wrote in his newsletter about a 17-year-old defendant getting out on a cash bond of $30,000, but without the judge knowing he was wanted on active warrants and a suspect in other active cases. At Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ recent town hall, Shields made similar complaints.
Taryn Chilivis Bowman, a local business owner and sometime political candidate, says that such apparently routine signature bonds are “a slap in the face to our whole police force and the citizens of Atlanta.”
Bowman is starting up a “Fulton County Judicial Accountability Task Force” to educate residents about the court system and pay attention to how judges decide particular cases.
Nicknamed “Adopt a Judge” by Mary Norwood, the chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, the program right now is a basic sign-up sheet where a resident agrees to follow a particular judge in any Fulton court, learn about their background, show up in their courtrooms, and find out when they are up for election or who appointed them.
“Everybody is picking a judge and we’re really going to watch them,” says Bowman. “We’re letting them know we’re there and we’re watching… We’re trying to help the good judges do what they need to do and get the bad judges out.”
Her effort is largely organized through such private crime-fighting Facebook groups as Concerned Citizens United, which held a large meeting last year about Judge Downs’ decision. She says the group has identified about 65 judges and as of late February had 22 residents signed up to watch one.
Bowman ran unsuccessfully last year as a Republican for Buckhead’s House District 40 seat, a race eventually won by Democrat Erick Allen. Bowman said she would still like to hold that office, but added, “I probably won’t run again.” Political ambition is not behind her judge-watching, she said.
Fulton County government has its own court liaison program, called Citizen CourtWatch, but several leaders of local Facebook crime-fighting groups have said it’s of little or no use. Norwood said she hopes Robb Pitts, the chair of the Fulton County Commission and a Buckhead resident, will take the lead on arranging some meetings with judges. Pitts did not respond to questions.
Matzigkeit wrote in his recent newsletter that he and City Councilmember Matt Westmoreland recently met with Fulton Superior Court Chief Judge Robert C.I. McBurney and Chief Magistrate Judge Cassandra Kirk to discuss the issues. He said the discussion of judges lacking full information about defendants during a bond decision “illuminates a potential opportunity to fix a crack in the system.”
Norwood called for more “appropriate” sentencing of young offenders to keep them out of gangs and longer prison terms. “We could not be more effectively harming lives and destroying lives of young people in our city if we don’t get the appropriate – and the key word is ‘appropriate’ – consequences for young [offenders],” she said.
Shaw, the Zone 2 commander, frequently informs the neighborhood about new crimes and call for reforms while also trying to calm fears. At the February meeting of NPU-A, he spoke about crime in terms of “buts.” Buckhead’s pretty safe overall, he said, but its crime is up, unlike most of Atlanta. He sends out updates on significant crimes for posting on social media like Nextdoor, but warns that social media can spread unwarranted fear. Police staffing is too low, but officers are catching a lot of suspects. But judges often let the suspects out immediately. But either way, the sheer number of thieves heading to Buckhead quickly replaces those who are caught.
“It’s delicate to put it like this,” said Shaw. “You really, really are probably in the safest police beat in the entire city.”
He said “two things that are true at the same time” – Atlanta has its lowest crime rate in about a half-century, but the rates have been up in Zone 2 and Downtown. Shields said that in the first two months of 2019, Zone 2 crime was down 5 percent over the same period in 2018.
In Buckhead, Shaw said, the uptick is mostly property crime. He said car break-ins have become a top form of thievery “because people leave guns and keys and cash and $3,000 purses.”
Shaw wasn’t pulling the idea of expensive purses out of thin air. “We found out that they take some of those purses to high-end consignment sales,” he said. “We’ve had [criminals] tell us they can make five or six thousand dollars a week coming up here.”
Whatever the type of crime, many residents have voiced fears in meetings and Facebook groups for over 18 months. “We’re all frightened,” one woman told Shaw at the NPU-A meeting.
The Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods was scheduled to focus its March 14 meeting on the crime issue, according to Norwood, who sent the mayor and City Council a letter in January calling for more crime-fighting action.
“We can’t allow these random acts of damage and violence,” Norwood said in an interview. “’Brazen’ and ‘random’ – those are two words when you put them together with ‘crime,’ that’s frightening.”
Shaw and Shields have said police staffing levels would be helped by a recent significant pay increase approved by Bottoms and the City Council, and that Buckhead policing will be improved by a new plan to shrink Zone 2’s boundaries.