Authorities recapped efforts to battle street racing and other crimes in back-to-back virtual meetings Nov. 12 of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods and the Atlanta Police Department.

“It’s an issue where the Atlanta Police Department is always going to be outnumbered,” said Maj. Andrew Senzer, commander of Buckhead’s Zone 2 APD precinct, about street racing.

Senzer said APD is getting some assistance from a law the Atlanta City Council passed earlier this year to crack down on “non-driver participants” who help to organize street races. But, he said, it is not a silver bullet.

The new law has been confusing and problematic, as provisions about arresting spectators and impounding cars ended up defanged in the final product.

Enforceable new provisions of the law include requiring the maximum fine allowed under state law — $1,000 — and applying the law not only to drivers but to others actively involved in organizing or operating the races. A provision to also outlaw the watching of a race was deleted amid civil liberties concerns, but was widely misreported by major media as a key part of the law.

Another provision in the law calls for impounding an accused street-racer’s vehicle for 30 days or until a court rules on the case. But city attorneys said during an August council meeting that such a seizure of property exceeds the limits allowed to cities under Georgia law. City Council members wanted to keep that intimidating provision, so they left it in place, but added fine-print language that the impounding period can be up to the maximum allowed under state law. According to city attorneys, that period is in fact always less than 30 days and cannot legally continue through the court process.

City officials appear to have let misunderstandings about the impounding continue so that the law sounds much tougher than it is. Councilmembers, police officials and city solicitors have continued to incorrectly describe it in public. But that, too, appears to be changing.

The Atlanta City Council on Nov. 16 is scheduled to discuss a resolution “urging” the Georgia General Assembly to change state law to permit longer impounding of vehicles, among other measures.

In the Nov. 12 APD meeting, Lt. R.J. Albertini said the department has a three-pronged strategy with street racing. One is simply responding to 911 calls. APD also uses historical data, putting officers in unmarked and marked cars in locations where street racers have been known to hold events.

“Lastly, we use social media to follow where these events are going to take place,” he said.

Charges against accused street racers may include altered mufflers, laying drags, reckless driving, racing and drag racing.

One problem authorities have with prosecuting street racers is that many of the cars have been stolen, making identifying drivers by tags impossible, officers said.

Sezner said that rcently one officer encountered a situation in Buckhead with 100 street racers, so he turned on his lights and tried to push them back onto the interstate and out of Zone 2. Instead of leaving, Senzer said, they surrounded his car, spit on it and tried to rip the license plate off the patrol car.

Senzer said police had some success after the fact. By using footage from the officer’s body and dashboard cameras, one suspect was matched up with a social media profile and arrest warrants were issued.

The Georgia State Patrol partners with APD on street-racing crackdowns, officials said.

Other crime

Aggravated assaults are up 21% and auto thefts are up 30% for the year, Senzer said.

He addressed the recent issue of “water boys,” or young people who sell bottled water on the street. The practice drew citywide police attention as a public safety hazard and for incidents of robberies and other violence involving water-sellers. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration convened an advisory council to come up with outreach and entrepreneurial opportunities, while APD focused on a crackdown.

“As soon as we started getting guns off 14- and 15-year-olds, seeing kids rob other kids,” Senzer said, “that was the time to pump the brakes and take a look at what was going on and start really taking a stronger attack on this.”

Though diminished, the problem continues, Senzer said. He said three young water-sellers were detained the week before the Nov. 12 meeting, and their fathers were called to pick them up. With Atlanta Public Schools closed, truancy offices are not operating, which is normally where officers would take such children during school hours. Instead, officers must sit with them until they are picked up by parents, he said.

–Bob Pepalis and John Ruch

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.