An increase in violent crime has spurred a movement in Atlanta’s wealthiest and whitest neighborhood, Buckhead, to push harder to secede and create a new city with its own police force. The idea, which has been gaining momentum over the past year, is raising alarm among Atlanta officials worried about a loss of population and tax revenue.
The Republican-majority state legislature, which just opened its 2022 session, is taking up proposed legislation this month for a referendum on Buckhead cityhood. Politicians in largely Democratic Atlanta oppose the idea.
Bill White, chief executive of the committee pushing Buckhead cityhood, said Atlanta hasn’t done enough to stem violence, car-thefts, drag-racing and other crimes that surged beginning in 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic and after civil unrest followed Black Lives Matter protests.
"They really don’t care about Buckhead," Mr. White, said about city officials. "They just want the money."
Atlanta leaders including Mayor Andre Dickens have said they are taking steps to address crime in Buckhead and the rest of the city and that remaining united is important.
Violent crime has risen in large cities across the nation, with several setting new records for murders in recent years. Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Louisville, Ky., and Albuquerque, N.M., had their deadliest years on record in 2021. Atlanta had 158 homicides in 2021 and 157 in 2020, compared with 99 in 2019, according to the Atlanta Police Department.
There were 13 murders in Atlanta Police Zone 2, which includes Buckhead, last year through the week ending Dec. 25, up 63% from the same period in 2020. People have posted videos from Buckhead on social media of assaults, drag-racing, gunfire and other potentially criminal activity.
The surge in crimes—from murders to shoplifting sprees—has sparked political debates in many cities about how to best combat crime and what resources are needed. But in Buckhead, where 108,000 of Atlanta’s 510,000 residents live, the political debate has shifted from calls for more police officers to the possibility of splitting a city apart.
Jim Durrett, president and chief executive of the Buckhead Coalition, a group of community and business leaders that opposes secession, said establishing services and taxes in a new city would be more difficult than proponents claim. He also said the loss of residents and tax revenue would severely damage what remains of Atlanta.
The Buckhead Coalition and other groups are reaching out to residents about the complications and costs of Atlanta splitting apart. He said some people who were entertaining the idea of secession last year are starting to have doubts.
"I am a little bit worried today, but I am less worried than I was six months ago," Mr. Durrett said.
Growth in violent crime is already a major political issue in Atlanta. Former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms didn’t seek re-election last November amid widespread criticism of how she has handled the issue. Her successor, Mr. Dickens, who took office this month, campaigned largely on combating crime.
Local officials opposed to secession have recently taken steps to demonstrate their interest in combating crime in Buckhead. The City Council is creating a new public safety task force to focus on the neighborhood.
Mr. Dickens, a Democrat whose post is nonpartisan, last week held a press conference outside a new police office under construction in Buckhead and promised more officers for the area.
"It is of paramount concern for me to stop this crime wave in our city," he said. "We will be one city with one bright future."
Mr. White said he believed Atlanta officials are now trying to appease residents because of the cityhood proposal. An independent Buckhead City would focus resources to increase the number of officers protecting the area and give those officers better equipment and resources, he said.
Critics of Buckhead cityhood argue the Atlanta-Buckhead split would divide the region along economic and racial lines. Buckhead City would be about 71% non-Hispanic white and about 11% Black, while the remaining Atlanta would be about 27% non-Hispanic white and 61% Black, according to data compiled by the Atlanta Regional Commission, a regional planning agency. The median household income in Buckhead City would be about $110,000, compared with $58,000 in remaining Atlanta.
Mr. White objected to Buckhead cityhood being viewed in racial or economic terms.
"You just want to get control of crime in your community," he said. "It’s unfair to say that is racist."
Annexed to Atlanta in 1952, Buckhead has long been known as a hub of restaurants, bars and clubs and is home to large estates. The Georgia governor’s mansion is in Buckhead.
The lead sponsors of the bill for a Buckhead secession referendum are State Sen. Brandon Beach and Rep. Todd Jones, both Republicans who represent suburbs north of Atlanta. Neither responded to queries seeking comment. Mr. Beach previously said in a statement that rising crime made Buckhead residents feel unsafe and they deserve a government responsive to their needs.
State representatives and senators who represent Buckhead, all Democrats, oppose the idea. If the state legislation were to pass, a referendum of all Buckhead residents could be held as early as this November. If the referendum succeeded, more legislation would be needed to implement secession.
Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who is seeking re-election this year, hasn’t taken a position on the proposal. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican challenger to Mr. Kemp, said he supports it, while leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams opposes it.
In Buckhead, yard signs supporting and opposing the plan dot lawns. Signs touting "Buckhead City" have been vandalized to turn the proposed city name into an expletive.
Sheldon Dennie, 23, who works in online marketing, said the push to set up a new city was divisive.
"I don’t think Buckhead needs to be separate from Atlanta," said Mr. Dennie. "Crime is still going to be here."
Evita Alexander-Esteves, a 37-year-old business consultant, and her wife, Jade Alexander-Esteves, 34, who works in human resources, both back a new Buckhead City. Their car was stolen out of their condominium building’s garage recently and they had cars broken into, they said. The crime "makes me want to move to the suburbs," said Evita Alexander-Esteves.