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Shooting, Missteps Mar Atlanta's Image

By HARRY R. WEBER, Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA (AP) - March 19, 2005 - Atlanta has spent years promoting itself as the welcoming, friendly Capital of the New South - "the city too busy to hate.'' That image has taken a beating following a deadly courthouse rampage that left many with the impression that the city is unsafe and its police inept. It only gets worse as more details about what went wrong continue to trickle out daily.

National television and radio talk show hosts have ripped on the city's response to the rampage, with some referring to the local police as "Keystone Kops.''

A local radio personality even said: "Thank God he left Atlanta, otherwise they never would have found him,'' referring to the suspect's capture in a suburb.

Among the missteps: A surveillance camera that recorded images of a rape suspect overpowering a petite deputy and taking her gun was not monitored even as he allegedly entered a courtroom and gunned down a judge and a court reporter.

Local police did not take control of the crime scene until some 20 minutes after the shootings, as the suspect carjacked five vehicles within a mile of the courthouse before walking to a train station in the heart of the city's downtown.

The first photos of the suspect were not circulated until an hour after the initial attack, about the time the suspect escaped on a commuter train.

Although he asked a reporter whose car he stole for directions to a busy mall, the suspect spent as many as 12 hours milling around outside the mall, undetected, before assaulting a couple and killing a federal agent.

And those are just the missteps that have come to light in recent days. Others were known by the time the suspect, Brian Nichols, was arrested March 12, following a 26-hour manhunt.

Mayor Shirley Franklin responded to all the hammering on the city's image Friday, simply by saying: "We're not perfect, but we seek to be the best we can be.''

City officials have nurtured the city's image as a safe, sophisticated place. Atlanta came through the civil rights era with relatively little violence because civic leaders feared trouble would be bad for business.

The city's reputation has helped draw business, sporting events and tourists - it is consistently listed among the Top 10 destinations for conventions and other large meetings.

But Atlanta also landed third on a list of the nation's most dangerous large cities in November, although the study's authors said it would have been fourth if they had known about unreported crimes in St. Louis.

Atlanta has done much to play down its crime - even cooking its crime statistics to help land the 1996 Olympics and pump up tourism, according to an audit commissioned by police and released last year.

The city's police chief, Richard Pennington, has said he is making widespread improvements in the city's policing and said he will oversee a full review of mistakes in the wake of the courthouse slayings.

The manhunt and its missteps were dissected in the national media, creating a high-profile problem for the city's reputation.

"Regardless of who failed or why they failed, to the general public the fact is they failed,'' said Joe King, associate professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Justice in New York.

"The biggest black eye you could say happened to the Atlanta Police Department and the Sheriff's office is they failed to see this coming and they failed to gear up for it,'' King said.

Fulton County Sheriff Myron Freeman did not answer questions about why a 51-year-old, 5-foot female deputy was left alone with an uncuffed, 6-foot-1, 200-pound former college linebacker on trial for rape.

One of Nichols' alleged victims, the judge on his rape case, had requested extra security the day before after Nichols was found with shanks in each of his shoes. Even after killing the judge and court reporter, the gunman made it down eight flights of stairs and walked out onto the street before being confronted by a deputy, who was shot and killed.

Freeman has said his department provided the security the judge requested, but refused to elaborate. Four days after the shootings, he said he would increase the number of deputies at the courthouse and use more stun belts on defendants.

"We will do everything in our power to keep such a tragedy from ever occurring again,'' Freeman said in a written statement.

Police, meanwhile, focused their manhunt on a vehicle carjacked by the suspect - its description appeared on TVs and highway message boards across the state. However, the vehicle was found 13 hours later on a lower level in the same garage where it was stolen, discovered by one of the garage's customers, not police.

"We should have gone through the entire building,'' Pennington said. "We didn't, based on the information we had at the time,'' which was a report that someone saw the vehicle exit the garage.

In the meantime, Nichols allegedly hijacked other cars and fled on the Atlanta commuter-train system MARTA.

"There was a huge effort under way to catch this guy. But in many ways he was good and sometimes he was just damn lucky,'' said Gene Wilson, the police chief of MARTA.

Although the incident has brought bad publicity for Atlanta, it shouldn't cause lasting damage to the city's drawing power, said Colin Rorrie, president of Dallas-based Meeting Professionals International.

"If there were a number of these things over a period of time, then people might take a second look,'' Rorrie said. "Unfortunately, in our country today, there are these incidents that happen.''


Associated Press Writer Doug Gross contributed to this report.



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