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Breaking in

What criminals can teach us about fighting crime

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On what was a quiet day in April, Volkan Topalli finally gets the call. The rendezvous point will be a fast-food joint just outside the Five Points MARTA Station. It's a crowded, nondescript kind of place, which means it will be safe. Topalli needs to be there, ready and waiting, when the guy shows up.

ONE WITH THE STREET: Volkan Topalli stops to greet a homeless man in the Westside neighborhood where he conducts his street research. Because of the nature of the research, he asked that his face not be pictured. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • ONE WITH THE STREET: Volkan Topalli stops to greet a homeless man in the Westside neighborhood where he conducts his street research. Because of the nature of the research, he asked that his face not be pictured.

About a half-hour before the meeting time, Topalli locks the door of his downtown office and makes his way through the maze of fluorescent-lit hallways. He moves like a high-school wrestler -- tough, agile, focused on his task. His heavy brow and coal-black eyes suggest Eastern European blood (his mother is Turkish, his father Albanian). He's intense and straightforward, borderline stiff.

Except that when he takes a seat in the restaurant, his ruler-straight posture slackens. And when he opens his mouth to talk to the guy sitting across from him, his voice takes on a different edge -- less eloquent, more blunt. He turns on the tape recorder.

"Are you OK being in here?" Topalli asks.

"Yeah," the guy says, "I'm cool."

Topalli gets right to the point. "First I just want to know, do you sell drugs on a regular basis?"

"Yeah, every day."

"What do you sell?"

"I sell crack, weed. That's it."

"No Boy?"

"No Boy."

"In an average week, how much money do you think you take in doing that?"

"In a week? About two grand."

The dealer delves into the merits of slinging crack over heroin. ("The Boy, it's just too much traffic," he says of the latter. "It's just too much heat.") Topalli then starts to nudge the conversation toward the topic he's most interested in: how the dealer retaliates against those who disrespect him.

He has to make the shift appear seamless. He must act natural. There's no looking down at a set of notes with a guy like this. Not that Topalli needs notes; he's gone through the drill enough times by now.

"I'm going to ask you about that time you got robbed, the first time," Topalli says. "When was that?"

"This was like two years ago. I was in the parking lot next to a Dumpster, and I was stashing my shit. I don't know, some dude must have peeped me or something."

"He had a strap on?"

"Yeah, he had a gun on him. I ain't have no gun that time."

"Was he a user or a dealer?"

"I don't know what the fuck he was. It happened so fast. When I turned around, I'm like, 'Damn.' I'm thinking about this gun in my face. I know them some violent motherfuckers. They will straight dump on you, you know what I'm saying? I drop the shit. That was my chance right there."

"You ran? Weren't you afraid of him shooting you in the back?"

"Man, I ran. It ain't worth it when somebody's got a gun pointed in your face and they want some dope. I broke and ran around the trash can."

"Where did you go?"

"Went to my grandmother's house. I calmed myself down. She asking me questions about when I'm going to come and clean her carpet and all that, take the trash out. And I just been robbed. So first thing I did, I went to the bathroom, sat down."

"What were you feeling at that time? Were you feeling angry? Scared?"

"I was scared for my life, you know what I'm saying? The majority of the time, they'll shoot you. They don't give a fuck."

"Did you try to find out who the guy was?"

"It had to be somebody that been watching me stash my stuff right there. It had to be somebody that knew me. See, situations like that, you don't just wave your mark. You can't run your mouth."

Finally, Topalli's golden question: "Let's say somebody did walk up to you and they told you who it was. What would you do?"

"What would I do? I would sit back, think about it. If it's somebody I really know or know of, I would want to get this motherfucker. So my thing, I might bust the motherfucker upside his head. I would have just whipped his motherfucking ass. You jeopardize my motherfucking life for some motherfucking crack, and it ain't even worth it. I'll put him up in the motherfucking hospital, you know what I'm saying? Grady, bitch."

"Yeah, but if you just put him in the hospital he might come back again later."

"I ain't gonna lie, I'll pop him in his motherfucking ass. I'll pop him in his foot. He gonna live, but he gonna be hurting."

CRIME RE-ENACTMENT: Topalli has driven the Westside with robbers and drug dealers to better understand why they committed their crimes. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • Joeff Davis
  • CRIME RE-ENACTMENT: Topalli has driven the Westside with robbers and drug dealers to better understand why they committed their crimes.

The 26-year-old crack dealer is good at what he does. He buys an ounce for $800 and sells it for $3,000. He deals in the morning, usually from 6 a.m. to noon, so he can snag his customers on their way to work. He likes to do business in vacant apartments. He operates in different neighborhoods, wherever he ends up that day. But his closest ties are to the Westside.

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