7-year-old’s shooting death fuels calls for private police in affluent Atlanta neighborhood

The random shooting death of a 7-year-old girl in Atlanta has prompted a coalition of politicians, police and businesses to ramp up calls to establish a private security force to supplement the Atlanta Police Department.

Seven year old Kennedy Maxie was fatally shot on Dec. 21 shortly after she had finished Christmas shopping with her family at the Phipps Plaza mall in Buckhead, an affluent residential and commercial neighborhood in Uptown Atlanta.

A stray bullet passed through her family’s car and struck Kennedy in the back of the head, police said.

The girl was in critical condition for days before succumbing to her injuries on Dec. 26.

Atlanta police confirmed to NBC News that the girl’s shooting death was one of a record-breaking number of homicides investigated by the department in 2020.

“As of the end of the week 52 reporting period we are at 154 homicides compared with 99 for the same period of 2019,” Atlanta Police Officer Steve Avery said in a statement. “That is an increase of 61%.”

Mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms said that the Atlanta Police had “significant leads” in their search for suspects of what she called a “senseless murder” in a statement to NBC affiliate WXIA.

Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tweeted that “the current level of violence in our city can’t stand. We all have to work to push back against it. It is a solvable problem. We have done it before. Full stop.”

Some local politicians and interest groups are linking Kennedy’s death to renewed calls for a security overhaul — including a private police force — to supplement the Atlanta Police Department in the area.

“The violent protests and looting in early spring was followed by a steady stream of local shootings and other crimes throughout the summer and fall,” Atlanta City council member Howard Shook wrote in an email to NBC News.

“Then, when we didn’t think it could get any worse, it did when little Kennedy Maxie was fatally shot.”

Speaking to Channel 2, council member J.P. Matzigkeit said “I don’t think that we’re doing effective policing right now because I don’t think we’re putting enough resources and attention to it like we are with the police reform work that we’re doing. We have to do both.”

In response to the death of Kennedy, Matzigkeit, Shook, and fellow council member Matt Westmoreland all announced on Dec. 28 that they were allocating a total of $125,000 from their municipal funds to the Buckhead Security Plan, which includes a proposal for a private police force in the business district.

In an interview with NBC News on Jan. 5, Westmoreland said he and other council backers hoped the additional patrols of off-duty police officers will resemble those from the Midtown Alliance, a public-private partnership that has for years run a CCTV network and a private security force in the Midtown business district just south of Buckhead.

Westmoreland, a former teacher who represents all of Atlanta through his at-large seat on the city council, said he introduced legislation on Jan. 4 to earmark his office’s $25,000 contribution for a $50,000 line item in the Buckhead Security Plan dedicated to expanding programming at the Atlanta Police Foundation’s three At-Promise Youth & Community Centers.

Westmoreland said that funding the centers, which provide social and community services to youths and young adults, helps “make sure that they don’t ever experience the criminal justice system to begin with.”

The Buckhead Coalition, an advocacy group that says the neighborhood “has been called ‘The Beverly Hills of the East,'” assembled the plan, which it said would “enhance public safety in Buckhead.”

Also backing the plan are the the Atlanta Police Foundation, the Atlanta Police Department, members of the Fulton County Commission, a member of Mayor Lance-Bottoms’ administration and several community groups.

“Buckhead has a very robust and organized business community, and they saw the need to expand into the public safety vacuum created by the City,” Council member Shook said, adding that he contributed $50,000 from his budget.

Jim Durrett, the Buckhead Coalition’s president and executive director of the Buckhead Community Improvement District, said in a press release that the Security Plan’s boosters “understand the urgency of the situation and are committed to responding in ways that meet the needs of this moment and put Buckhead on a solid footing for years to come.”

A donate button on the Buckhead Security Plan website directs to an Atlanta Police Foundation.

The security plan calls for a wider net of surveillance cameras and license plate readers throughout the popular commercial district. It also calls for crackdowns on drag racing, “party houses” and for a “Dedicated Buckhead Supplemental Security Force.”

The force would operate as “a coordinated security patrol consisting of extra-duty officers from the Atlanta Police Department, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia State Patrol, and private security firms, within the commercial and residential areas of Buckhead.”

The Buckhead Security Plan website notes that as of this month, “overall city-wide crime rates are down approximately 17% when compared to 2019,” but that certain crime categories have increased.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the plan is estimated to cost $1.6 million and that the privately-funded police patrols are scheduled to begin in January.

“I don’t know that any of that would have staved off the horrible shooting,” Shook said of the security plan.

“The mall in question has hundreds of cameras and has upped their security force (including gun-sniffing dogs). Despite it — or, perversely, because of it — trouble-makers show up there,” Shook said.