Crime was down, murder up, during Chattanooga chief nominee's time in Atlanta

Data mirrored national trends under leadership of Murphy, up for confirmation Tuesday

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / New police chief appointee Celeste Murphy speaks at City Hall on Tuesday.
Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / New police chief appointee Celeste Murphy speaks at City Hall on Tuesday.

During his news conference last month announcing Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy of the Atlanta Police Department as his nomination for the next police chief of Chattanooga, Mayor Tim Kelly said that "over her two decades plus of service she has achieved a double-digit reduction of overall crime in a single year in 2020."

As her Tuesday confirmation vote at the Chattanooga City Council draws near, the Times Free Press took a closer look at Atlanta crime trends.

Kelly's announcement focused on crimes that fall under Part 1 of the FBI's uniform crime reporting standards - murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. Atlanta reported 25,243 such crimes in 2019 and 21,589 in 2020 - a 14.5% reduction.

Chattanooga officials said they focused on 2020 because that was the year Murphy served as deputy chief of field operations, supervising 900 officers in six patrol zones in Atlanta.

Atlanta Police Department reports reviewed by the Times Free Press show the Part 1 crime that was reduced the most under Murphy's leadership was rape, which fell from 219 in 2019 to 119 in 2020, a 46% reduction. There were less pronounced reductions of reported larceny, burglary and robbery.

At the same time, reports of other crimes were up that year. Auto theft reports grew by 4%, and aggravated assaults by 15%.

The highest percentage increase in crime that year was murder, rising from 99 in 2019 to 157 in 2020 - a 59% increase.

Ellis Smith, director of special projects for the Chattanooga mayor's office, noted that the trends in Atlanta were similar to those across the nation - overall crime was down, but homicides were up.

"Reducing violent crime is extremely important, and will remain a key focus for CPD going forward, as it has been in the past," Smith said. "But the mayor also wanted a chief who had the background and experience to reduce all types of crime, particularly property crime, which we know is often a precursor to more violent crimes, and which broadly impact the community's quality of life, particularly in our more vulnerable neighborhoods. The mayor and Chief Murphy care about every dimension of crime."

Precinct work

Before heading up field operations, Murphy served as a leader in two policing areas - Zone 3 in Southeast Atlanta from July 2018 to April 2019 and Zone 4 in Southwest Atlanta from May 2019 to January 2020.

Both areas showed increases in murder, aggravated assault and theft during the time period Murphy was in leadership, as compared to the same time period the previous year under her predecessor. The zones saw decreases in robbery, burglary and auto theft under Murphy's leadership.

The overall Part 1 crime trend was down 5% during Murphy's tenure as major in Southeast Atlanta and down 15% during her tenure as commander in Southwest Atlanta.

"One of the most challenging roles as a zone commander is managing limited resources strategically, concentrating on targeted enforcement and constant community engagement," Murphy said in a statement released by the mayor's office in response to questions about the precinct trends.

Smith added additional context in an email.

"During the time Celeste was in Zone 3, the majority of the homicides were in commercial parking lots like gas stations and apartment complexes. Acquaintance crimes and retaliatory gang violence were the most common contributing factors," Smith said. "Zone 4 also saw primarily retaliatory gang violence. These were majority domestic or acquaintance incidents also. Summertime and heading toward the end of the year are historically when Atlanta experiences spikes in violent crime. In both zones, you can see the incidents were spread out over the zone on each beat almost evenly. There was no specific spot that was an outlier or got out of control."

He said the Atlanta Police Department's "practice was to put all of its resources into an area immediately following an act of violence and show presence until the crime in that neighborhood subsided, while also stepping up community engagement."

Maria Tcherni, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, said crime may be more affected by changes in population and societal trends than by police leadership.

"Judging the work of a police chief, or police in general, based on crime fluctuations is like judging the work of a fire chief based on the number of fires that happened in the area," Tcherni said. "Police respond to crime. Their ability to prevent crime is very limited."

Domestic violence

After her transfer from command of Zone 4, Murphy began to work on strategy and special projects, where she was responsible for coordinating and facilitating the "department's strategic crime-fighting initiatives and implementation of new technologies and projects," according to her resume.

One of the many projects Murphy took on was in collaboration with the Prosecuting Attorneys' Council of Georgia to "create specialized domestic violence training for APD and other law enforcement agencies" as well as "developed roll call training videos for first response to domestic violence calls in identifying victims and predominate aggressors."

According to the Atlanta crime data, reports of domestic violence went down under her leadership in both Zones 3 and 4 as well.

Sharla D. Jackson, the domestic violence and sexual assault resource prosecutor at the Prosecuting Attorney's Council of Georgia, praised Murphy's willingness to collaborate among agencies.

"When we work in silos, everyone could be working on the same project but working against each other, because your policies don't quite match up or have no idea what resources other parts of the system have to address the problem," Jackson said. "I just think, when you're able to collaborate, it helps the community."

Murphy has also helped make improvements to the language used when filing domestic violence reports, Jackson said.

Jackson also said she was proud of Murphy and commended her on her new future role as police chief of Chattanooga.

"As an African American woman who's worked in law enforcement, I'm just exceedingly proud of her accomplishments, and not surprised," Jackson said. "I know she's going to serve the citizens of Chattanooga well."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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