NBC News - A stray bullet struck Kennedy Maxie, 7, as she rode in the back seat of a car passing a mall in Atlanta's affluent Buckhead district four days before Christmas, leading to her death and triggering a police manhunt that continued Wednesday for the suspected gunman.
The random tragedy echoed that of Secoriea Turner, 8, who was shot and killed July 4 while riding in a car with her mother and a family friend as they attempted to pull into a parking lot south of downtown Atlanta and were met by armed individuals blocking the entrance. Her death, which came as protests for racial justice flared across the city following the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks, prompted Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to declare that "enough is enough."
But with Atlanta set to close the year with its highest homicide count in more than two decades and a more than 50 percent increase in murders — to 154 in 2020 from 99 in 2019, police data show — Bottoms is facing pushback from city leaders demanding comprehensive steps to curb the growing violence. About 20 of the homicide victims who were 18 and younger reportedly died from gunfire.
"To the administration, I don't want to hear the word 'uptick,'" City Councilman Howard Shook, whose district includes Buckhead, said in a scathing statement after Kennedy's shooting. "Stop minimizing our concerns by telling us that 'crime is up everywhere.' Spare us from the lie that the steady outflow of our officers isn't as bad as it is. And please, not another throw-away press conference utterly devoid of game-changing action steps."
In an unusual undertaking, a coalition of business and civic leaders in Buckhead is taking matters into its own hands. With the help of fundraising efforts, private police officers in January are scheduled to begin patrols in the district — part of a larger "Buckhead Security Plan" unveiled earlier this month.
The plan is estimated to cost upwards of $1.6 million. Three city council members, including Shook, said their offices are donating $125,000 in total.
"Far too many of our residents don't feel safe, and too many of our men and women in uniform don't feel supported," Matt Westmoreland, one of the three council members, said in a statement Monday. "This plan aims to change that."
The initiative includes expanding and upgrading Buckhead's system of cameras and license plate readers, improving radio communication between the Atlanta Police Department and neighborhood security patrols, offering rewards for information about crimes, and supporting officer recruitment and retention.
Overall, Atlanta has seen a dip in other forms of crime, including rapes and robberies, although the increase in murder mirrors other large cities in 2020, including New York City and Los Angeles, which have recorded their highest homicide rates in about a decade.
Officer Steve Avery, an Atlanta police spokesman, said the department "encourages community involvement" to help reduce crime across the city.
"The privately funded police patrols that are a part of the Buckhead Security Plan are a welcome augmentation to our regular on-duty presence and we hope to coordinate these extra resources to align with APD's overarching crime fighting strategy," Avery said in an email.
The Atlanta Police Department came under scrutiny this year amid a wave of demonstrations that ignited across the city in May and June and led to some looting in business districts, including Buckhead. Criminal charges were brought against six Atlanta police officers accused of using force against two college students during the protests.
Then, the June 12 shooting of Brooks, a Black man who was shot twice in the back by police in a Wendy's parking lot, prompted the resignation of Police Chief Erika Shields and a felony murder charge against the officer who fired the weapon.
The loss of officers, an absence of community policing and a general distrust of police rooted in historic racial inequities in the criminal justice system, compounded by a pandemic that has deepened economic disparities, have only contributed to this surge in more violent crime, said Kalfani Ture, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and a former metro Atlanta police officer.
The need for Buckhead to devise its own security plan "suggests that police themselves are incapable of performing the job of public safety," he said.
While Buckhead, a mostly white district in a majority Black city, is able to marshal the necessary financial resources, in large part because it remains a wealthy commercial corridor, other struggling neighborhoods simply don't have that monetary leverage, Ture added.
"This is a tale of two worlds: one that is heavily strapped with cash and one heavily strapped with economic precariousness," he said.
Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Brown said he intends to introduce legislation Monday to address public safety from a "wellness perspective" while acknowledging "you have officers who are overworked, overwhelmed, underappreciated and are working in a lowered morale." He said details of the legislation were forthcoming.
"With Atlanta being the civil rights hub of the United States, we have a responsibility to really be a pioneer to public safety in this country and create a model that other municipalities can follow," he said.
The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Buckhead's security plan.
During a news conference Tuesday, Bottoms said she spoke with Kennedy's family while the girl was still in critical condition and that her mother repeatedly said "her baby didn't deserve that."
"If there's something that we're not doing, if there's something we have not enacted, if there is something we need to do better, my ego is small enough to ask you to tell me what we can and should do differently," Bottoms said.
Police on Tuesday identified the suspect in Kennedy's shooting as Daquan Reed, 24, of Virginia, who is wanted on several charges, including felony murder. Reed got into an argument in a parking lot of Phipps Plaza, a mall in Buckhead, and fired three times outside a car window as he fled the scene, according to police. One of the bullets is believed to have hit Kennedy in the back of the head as she rode with her mother and her aunt. She died Saturday from her injuries.
Investigators had reviewed surveillance video in the area before identifying Reed, who has an extensive criminal record, police said. He remains at large.
"We will find him and we will bring him back to the city to face justice," interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant told reporters.
Bottoms added that while the death of Kennedy and Secoriea are "senseless," eradicating the enduring scourge of violence that claimed their lives won't be easy. Rewards for more information in both cases are being offered to the public. Meanwhile, a larger solution remains out of reach as Atlanta's mayor yet again has found herself pleading for help.
"If there is something that we can do differently, if you know what it is, let us know," she said, "and I promise you, if it will make a difference and it will stop us from having to be here again, we'll do it."