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The culture of shots fired, mouths shut on Atlanta Street
Gunfire in the dark causes concern
Gunfire at night in Atlanta Street neighborhoods has residents concerned, but many fear reprisal if they speak out.

Tricia Sowell’s children were sleeping in the front room of their home when gunshots pierced the night on March 6 in Gainesville.

She jumped up and made her way to the laundry room in back, where a window looked out toward the public housing complex on Atlanta Street.

A dark SUV sped away, she said, before police arrived to investigate.

Sowell wasn’t the only person to hear the shots that night.

“My daughter ran toward the door,” said Monica Townes. “I had to pull her back inside.”

The little girl might have mistaken the sound for fireworks.

But witnesses to the violent noises are harder to find. Officers reportedly scoured the grounds and buildings for bullet holes after the shooting. No injuries were reported.

A complaint of criminal damage to property on the same street at the same hour was logged with the police department that night.

Perhaps it’s the “snitches” label that some fear. For those who spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity or the promise that their name be changed to protect their privacy, it was a matter of safety.

An elderly man sitting on the front stoop outside his unit said he understands.

“Never know if they’ll come after you next,” he said.

One woman, who said she has young children, heard the gunshots that night and the chatter about it afterward.

“It came from right over there,” she said, pointing at a separate complex a few hundred yards away. “We talked about it, but nobody knows nothing.”

It’s a sound common enough in this neighborhood to make it unmistakable, but still unusual enough to remain unexpected as the hour approached midnight.

These particular gunshots reminded many of those who spoke with The Times about the death last June of Phillip Ronald Smith.

The well-liked Gainesville native who was once drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball club was found unresponsive late at night along Atlanta Street. No one has been charged in the homicide.

Police officials said they want residents to know there are ways to speak out while protecting their identity.

“It is vital for the overall safety and well-being of the community to have close, constant communication,” Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin said. “Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to protect one another.”

A tip line at 770-533-5873 is key for police to investigate complaints while ensuring anonymity, and social media has been a vital new tool to reach citizens, Martin said.

For Sowell, the gunshots that night are a reminder and a blessing.

“Praying and waiting on a safer place to raise my kids,” she said. “Thank God my kids were ... not hit by a stray bullet.”