DeKalb police chief addresses new homicide record, staffing shortage

DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha Ramos

Credit: DeKalb County Police Department

Credit: DeKalb County Police Department

DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha Ramos

DeKalb County hit a homicide record for the second straight year in 2021, mirroring the rise in the violent crime in Atlanta and other major U.S. cities.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies at all levels struggled to recruit and maintain enough officers. DeKalb’s police department was no exception.

Mirtha Ramos, DeKalb’s police chief, fielded questions from residents on those topics and more during a community Q&A on Tuesday evening. She laid out the department’s 2022 goals, which include hiring 100 new officers, a likely pay increase for police staff and new efforts to retain quality officers.

“We are trying to raise our standards,” Ramos said during the 90-minute virtual call. “We don’t want people who don’t meet our criteria, but it has been a challenge because back in the past, we used to receive hundreds of applications and now that number has dwindled.”

Ramos also touted several crime-fighting initiatives that the county will implement to address mental health crises, street racing, rising homicide numbers and transparency. Most of the new tactics and technologies will be funded with federal COVID-19 relief money given to DeKalb.

“Please rest assured that we are aware of the hotspots in your precinct and we are addressing them individually,” Ramos said.

Gunfire and street racing

A lot of attention is spent on Atlanta’s spike in homicides over the past two years. More than 158 killings took place in 2021 in Georgia’s capital, the most since 1996.

However, DeKalb had its own issues with rising gun violence and murder. In 2021, there were 135 homicides in DeKalb, surpassing last year’s 128 homicides — a record-setting figure at the time for DeKalb.

A good portion of the questions residents asked focused on how the department can quell the rise in violent crime.

Maj. William Wallace, who is over the department’s criminal investigations unit, said there are reasons to be optimistic that 2022 will be less violent in DeKalb. He cited the department’s homicide clearance rate of nearly 87%, meaning most homicide cases have led to arrests.

In addition, the number of homicides dropped by more than 16% during the second half of 2021 in comparison to the second half of 2020. The department credits this to new crime prevention and intervention strategies.

He also said the department will hire two crime analysts to better identify hotspots. He said last year’s hotspot initiatives led to a 5% reduction in crime in identified areas. Wallace said an important tactic to reducing violent crime is better conflict resolution strategies among residents.

“Practice active listening while trying to understand what the other person is saying, identify options for resolving conflict and work to get the facts straight and brainstorm ideas that can resolve the argument,” he said. “Try to move away from confrontation and toward agreement... if you’re unable to work it out, get help and seek counseling or mediation.”

Street racing, which became a common occurrence in the Atlanta area since 2020′s COVID-19 shutdown, was also on residents’ list of concerns. Wallace mentioned Georgia’s new street racing law, which allows police to charge the people organizing the illegal events in addition to participants. He said four people have been charged locally under that new statute.

Staffing each precinct

DeKalb police are split among four precincts: North Central, South, East and Tucker. Each had issues maintaining a full police force last year, and Ramos said the county is prioritizing financial incentives to attract officers and keep them in DeKalb.

She said DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond will present a pay increase of 6.25% for all officers to the county commission, which she’s confident will pass. Ramos added that $3,000 bonuses will also be available to help retain officers.

Ramos said funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, will finance many new initiatives within the department, including a new mobile precinct. Victim advocates will also be hired, freeing up officers’ time to pursue arrests.

DeKalb received nearly $74 million in ARPA funds last year and will receive another equal allocation in 2021.

Ramos said the department also plans to expand its number of mobile crisis units, which focus on mental health-related calls. The county currently has two units, which consist of a nurse and a police officer in an unmarked vehicle, and she hopes to eventually have one in each precinct.

“If they’re working, they respond to any call for service where we suspect mental health may play a part in the call,” Ramos said, adding the current units operate from 1 to 11 p.m.

The department will also purchase new technology to increase transparency when officers brandish their firearms. A sensor will be added to officers’ gun holsters, which will automatically activate bodycams when a gun is drawn.

There were 100 police shootings investigated by the GBI in 2021. According to data compiled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 12 of those shootings took place in DeKalb. Seven involved DeKalb police officers and one involved a DeKalb sheriff’s deputy. The others were in Brookhaven, Chamblee and Clarkston and involved city police officers.