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Report says Atlanta underreported crimes to help land Olympics

Saturday, February 21, 2004

ATLANTA -- Atlanta underreported crimes for years to help land the 1996 Olympics and pump up tourism, according to an audit commissioned by police and released Friday.

Police in this relentlessly self-promoting city of the New South routinely altered or suppressed thousands of crime reports in a concerted effort "to improve Atlanta's chances for selection," the audit said, citing interviews with several officers.

"Crime incidents were downgraded, underreported and discarded," the report said.

The practice of underreporting crime began during the site-selection process for the Olympics and continued until at least 2002, the report said.

Police chief Richard Pennington, who sought the audit, endorsed its findings and said he would seek money to add more than 300 street officers to the 1,600-member police force to crack down on the drug trade. He said 75 percent of violent crimes is tied to drugs.

"I don't want to alarm the citizens or have them think that when they walk out on the streets, they're going to be mugged, shot or robbed because that's not the case," Pennington said. "The reason that I brought this to light is to educate the public that there's a lot of work to be done."

Atlanta officials have long nurtured the city's image as a sophisticated, pro-business place. Calling itself "the city too busy to hate," Atlanta came through the civil rights era with relatively little violence because civic leaders feared trouble would be bad for business.

Despite the distorted figures, Atlanta ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in violent crimes such as rape and murder in nine of the last 10 years, according to FBI crime data, which is compiled from reports submitted by police departments.

The audit was conducted by a New York consulting firm and paid for by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which was formed to raise private money to supplement the police department's budget.

The report concluded that many crime reports have been either intentionally suppressed or lost through sloppy record-keeping. In 2002 alone, there were more than 22,000 missing police reports. Of those crimes, 4,281 could have been counted as violent offenses but were not.

Pennington said he wants to improve accountability, upgrade technology and increase officer pay by 40 percent. The mayor said she would work to find about $25 million in the budget to pay for new hires and salary increases.

Spurgeon Richardson, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, warned that the city needs to clean up crime or risk losing lucrative convention business and corporate investment.

"The No. 1 item that meeting planners ask us to do is to be a safer city," Richardson said. "We've all got to step forward to solve this problem."

Georgia State University criminal justice professor Robert Friedmann agreed that safety will influence business decisions.

"I've seen a business association that has come here for 20 years questioning whether they will come back because the presenters have been accosted downtown a number of times," he said.

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