South Fulton crime falls as more cops hired, officials say

Credit: Jim Gaines

Credit: Jim Gaines

Police Chief Keith Meadows said the city has added police during his tenure, but more are needed.

Crime in the city of South Fulton has gone down 30% over the last three years while the number of city police has more than doubled, city officials told residents Thursday evening.

Fulton County Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr., City Councilwoman Helen Willis, Sheriff Patrick Labat and South Fulton Police Chief Keith Meadows spoke to about 100 people gathered at Friendship Community Church for a public safety town hall.

South Fulton is the county’s newest city, incorporating in 2017. It has about 108,000 residents, making it by far the county’s most populous city south of Atlanta.

At the town hall, Meadows said the city has built up the department during his tenure, but more police are needed. And to compensate, South Fulton is relying on drones, cameras and license-plate readers. Meanwhile, Labat continued his public campaign for a new Fulton County jail, and added a pitch for the sheriff’s office’s own hiring push.

Crime has ticked up slightly so far this year, Meadows said, but he thinks it will decline again. One of the most prevalent crimes now is teenagers breaking into vehicles to steal guns, he said.

Meadows recalled hearing “horror stories” of two-hour police response times upon his appointment as chief in July 2018. Part of that was due to a structure of eight patrol beats that hadn’t been redone since 1971, he said.

“In 1971, most of this was farmland,” Meadows said. A city-commissioned study from Georgia Tech said the department needed 18 beats, he said.

When he became chief five years ago, the department had 87 officers. That has more than doubled, and 16 more were just hired, Meadows said.

But the Georgia Tech study said South Fulton should have 300 to 350 police, he said.

Meadows said he created special units for proactive patrols, but in lieu of sufficient staffing, the department is leaning on drones, cameras and license-plate readers.

South Fulton police have six drones, costing $50,000 each, that have a patrol range of 3 miles, Meadows said. He expects to get more in the next few years.

Two years ago South Fulton started deploying license-plate readers citywide, and Meadows wants “more and more layers” of them each year.

“We solved two murders just from license plate readers,” he said.

Speeding-ticket cameras in school zones bring in $300,000 a month, Meadows said. That has declined from $500,000 a month, he said. Most of those caught are not South Fulton residents, according to Meadows.

Now subdivisions are putting up cameras at their entrances, to which police generally have access, he said. The department is seeking grants to build its video infrastructure and couple it with crime data, Meadows said.

Willis said the city council recently approved spending $350,000 on a citywide network of cameras.

In April, the police department will open a new precinct at 3435 Roosevelt Highway, Meadows said. That will be the fourth precinct and the last to be opened for some time, he said.

In three or four years the department will have a new headquarters, moving from 100 Hartsfield Center, Meadows said. The city has bought a 9-acre site at 138 Old National Highway for a “state-of-the-art” headquarters that will have many public features, including a monitored “safe spot” for concluding online sales, he said.

Labat said he is expanding the sheriff’s office reach beyond its constitutional requirements, with raids on drug houses, street patrols and public outreach. But he spoke mostly about the Fulton County Jail, which the sheriff oversees. County commissioners are considering a $2 billion proposal to replace the crumbling 34-year-old jail on Rice Street, which was designed to hold 1,125 inmates but now has three times that many.

“We’ve got nearly 600 people sleeping on the floor,” Labat said.

The proposed jail would be much larger, but would also include mental health facilities and space for reentry and treatment programs that the old jail has no space for.

The sheriff’s office is trying to fill many open positions by offering a $10,500 signing bonus, and the county just raised deputies’ starting pay to $60,000 — with more raises coming, Labat said.

“Within 3 1/2 years our goal is to have a 56% pay increase for law enforcement,” counting recent raises, he said.