By John Schaffner
Major James Sellers began his career with the Atlanta Police Department (APD) driving a paddy wagon, hauling prisoners off to jail and on a foot beat in downtown Atlanta.
Today, he is commander of the APD’s Zone 2 in affluent Buckhead, which saw a 12 percent reduction in crime in 2006 and consistently records the lowest crime reports among Atlanta’s six police zones.
“Zone 2 has good news to report and a little bit of bad news to report,” Sellers said.
Addressing the Buckhead Business Association at a breakfast meeting Feb. 7, Sellers said crime in Zone 2 in 2007 was level with 2006 and that 2008 so far is showing an increase over the two previous years. However, he was quick to point out the increase is in property crimes, not crimes against people, such as assault, murder, etc.
He explained that 2006 was a good turning point in terms of reducing crime in Buckhead and all of Zone 2, which is the largest of the police zones encompassing 40 percent of the city limits. More than 28 square miles of that is in Buckhead. Zone 5 downtown covers 17 percent of the city.
“You can only continue to go down for a certain period of time and then other factors set in,” he told the group of more than 50 business representatives.
That happened in 2007. He said Zone 2 broke even in 2007 where all the other zones had increases in crime.
For instance, he reported that Zone 1 in northwest Atlanta was up 26 percent, mainly in crimes against people. Zone 3, which covers Grant Park and southeast Atlanta, was up 9 percent, Zone 4 was up 22 percent, Zone 5 in Midtown was up 2 percent and Zone 6, in east Atlanta and DeKalb County, was up 17 percent.
Sellers pointed out that violent crimes against persons, “which we cannot tolerate,” were down, with homicides being down 29 percent, rape down 47 percent ”thanks to closing a lot of the bars down.” Pedestrian robberies were down 23 percent and commercial robberies were down 8 percent.
“What we are having the increases in are property crimes — burglaries, larcenies from autos, larcenies from shopping centers,” Sellers said. “Crimes dealing with expensive items are going up.”
There are more parking lots and more cars in Buckhead in 2007 and 2008 then there were in 2006, he explained.
“It is not sufficient to have a police officer or security guard on the first floor of a 12-story parking deck. So we have to convince people to spend their own money on security.”
Sellers asked the crowd, “If you were a thief, would you rather go downtown, and maybe get a roll of nickels out of a car or some small item, or would you rather be here and get what I call the Buckhead package?”
He said it is hard to believe the things people are leaving in their cars, often in plain sight. The week of the breakfast meeting, Sellers said there were two cars that had a lot of cash in them — one $600 and the other $900 and they left the cars there for more than eight hours. He said they might have gotten away with leaving the cash there, but not with also leaving a laptop and a digital camera.
“When a person sees a laptop behind a piece of glass, and they are a thief, that’s what they want,” he added. “They are going to find a way to break that window and take the laptop. While they are there, they will look for something else valuable.”
Sellers said the real hot item now is GPS equipment. He said there were 30 taken from cars in Buckhead in two weeks. Also, five handguns were taken out of cars in one week.
For many years police in Atlanta didn’t talk about crime problems, which he indicated was a mistake.
“I like to say our officers run to crime, not away from crime.”
Logistically, Sellers said its best to find out where the crimes are occurring and then place officers there.
“Then there won’t be any crime there,” he said. “The crime will move off somewhere else. You keep moving the police officers, solicit the help of security guards and property owners and eventually you move it (the crime) so it not in your jurisdiction anymore.”
Sellers told the audience the second biggest problem in Buckhead is people leaving garage doors open, either when they leave to run an errand or when they are in the house. He said most garages have a lot of valuables in them.
Leaving the garage door open when you are at home can be the most dangerous, Sellers warned. Many people now will leave their pocketbook and keys in the car while the car is in the garage at their home and the garage door is open.
“There is a chance you could come and encounter that person (thief). That is a dangerous thing,” he added. “Remind everyone to close their garage doors and not to leave anything in sight in their cars.”
Sellers said working on that paddy wagon was “the most experience you could ever get. You get a little of the sociology and psychology part of policing right there at that job. You get to talk to prisoners on the way down to jail and kind of find out what motivates them.”
He also said he believes every police officer should have the experience of being a narcotics detective for at least a short period of time, “because when you work narcotics you also deal with psychology, really finding out how people operate and why they do the things they do.”
After his experience with the paddy wagon and narcotics, he believes every officer at rank of lieutenant and above should spend some time in internal affairs and see how members of the public feel they were treated by the police department. That is the customer service part of the police department, he added. There are issues where some members of the department need “retraining” from time to time.
He said the zone is doing okay in terms of manpower, but “we need to try to keep the officers we have. We can’t always find the way to pay them more money, but we can try to make the job more enriching.”