On Nov. 18, 74-year-old Melvin Cleveland, a dementia patient and longtime DeKalb County resident, took a bullet to the chest.
All the retired General Motors employee had done was step outside his home to investigate an odd noise at 11:30 a.m. But he soon fell dying, clutching his wound, as the unknown assailant fled. One month later, DeKalb police are still searching for answers in the case – and a suspect.
Cleveland’s case isn’t alone in that. The county police department’s homicide unit has struggled in 2016, losing seven of its 20 detectives. And while some crimes – rapes, home burglaries, pedestrian robberies – are down by double digits from 2015, homicides are up 14 percent, according to records released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
By mid-December, county police worked 80 homicides, versus 70 in 2015. The rate of resolved cases also dropped from 82 percent in 2015 to 70 percent this year.
Cedric Alexander, DeKalb’s public safety director, said other metropolitan areas around the United States have also seen increases in homicides, trends that are for the most part hard to explain.
DeKalb PD is still resolving cases at a higher rate than the national average, which trends around 65 percent, according to FBI statistics.
“What you’re seeing is a homicide unit that is very experienced, very seasoned, very dedicated,” Alexander told the AJC this week. “They’re probably some of the best homicide investigators in the country – and I’ve been around a lot of departments.”
But he said it’s “reasonable to assume” short-staffing in the unit is contributing to the lower rate of resolved cases.
Alexander said “natural attrition” – such as retirement and new job offers – was the cause of the openings, and he made clear that the entire department is under-staffed.
Agencies around metro Atlanta are having trouble retaining and recruiting officers, said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Among the issues are pay rates and unprecedented levels of scrutiny on police officers in the wake of high-profile shootings.
“No question about it,” Rotondo said Friday. “The reality is you don’t have as many applicants.”
DeKalb now has 740 officers and is down several hundred, Alexander said.
But the public safety director is quick to express pride in his ranks.
“We are critically below. But nobody is complaining about it,” he said. “It’s all hands on deck.”
The officers have been creative, engaged in the community and worked diligently to keep crime at bay, he said.
He hopes to soon find new homicide investigators to get the unit back fully staffed, but he said it’s difficult to find seasoned detectives who aren’t already employed.
Rotondo said DeKalb’s decrease in homicide detectives is concerning.
“The way you solve a homicide is, really, time,” Rotondo, a former homicide investigator, said. “When you’re thrown more cases you can only do what you can do. You do have to sleep and eat and pay attention to family.”
DEKALB CRIME STATS
|Crime||2015||2016 (As of Dec. 17)||Percent Change|
|Rape or attempt||151||127||-16%|
Statistics courtesy of DeKalb County police