Thirty years ago this month, the murder of a young cancer researcher sparked outrage in Atlanta. Dr. Mark Tetalman, a nuclear medicine specialist from Ohio, was attending a conference at the downtown Hilton Hotel when armed robbers shot him to death in front of his wife near the corner of Piedmont and Ponce de Leon Avenues.
The business community accused Mayor Maynard Jackson and Police Chief George Napper of dismissing public concerns about crime. Atlanta had the highest murder rate and the highest overall crime rate of any city, and the numbers were rapidly climbing higher, with a 69% increase in homicides between 1978 and 1979 alone.
The police force was demoralized and severely understaffed – far down from the 2,000 budgeted positions, which had never, in reality, translated into anywhere near 2,000 cops on the force. The size of the force had dwindled by 25% between 1975 and 1979.
A month later, the bodies of fourteen-year old Edward Hope Smith and thirteen-year old Alfred Evans were found on Nisky Lake Road in southwest Atlanta. The Atlanta child murders (or at least the officially recognized ones) had begun.
It is not inspirational to realize that these headlines could be from 1979 or 2009: “Police Demoralized, Underpaid, Understaffed.” “Mayor Accused of Not Caring About Public Safety.” “Youths Found Murdered.” “Cancer Researcher Killed in Robbery.”
How could so little have changed?
One thing changed. In 1979, the metro area’s population was 2,233,000. Thirty years later, it stands at 5,626,000. The population increase in Atlanta itself is much smaller – (approximately) 425,000 in 1979 and 519,000 today. Nearly 3.5 million more people in the region; nearly 100,000 more people in the city itself – and Atlanta still can’t seem to achieve those 2,000 cops.
I will be travelling to Atlanta today. Blogs will resume in a few days. Look for my blog postings and an op-ed on the Police Benefits scandal in Sunday Paper.