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After record-high in 2019, DeKalb police see drop in homicides

DeKalb County police on the scene of a crime. FILE PHOTO
DeKalb County police on the scene of a crime. FILE PHOTO

Credit: JOHN SPINK/AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK/AJC

After working a record number of homicides in 2019, DeKalb County police have seen a significant drop in slayings through the first half of 2020.

The 37% decline bucks the county’s own recent trends while also running counter to what many major American cities — including neighboring Atlanta — have experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and concurrent periods of civil unrest.

And while DeKalb officials are hardly declaring victory, they believe that new leadership and other initiatives launched over the last few years are starting to bear fruit.

“We do not celebrate a lower number, per se,” public safety director Jack Lumpkin, who was hired in 2018, said this week. “But we are encouraged that we are moving in the right direction.”

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Through June, DeKalb police had reported a total of 47 homicides (including five that were deemed to be “justified”). That represented a substantial decrease from the same period in 2019, a year that ended with a record-breaking total of 125 killings.

Officials were flummoxed by last year’s spike, with no real trends to identify and no easy explanations for the rise in violence.

It’s also hard to say definitively what’s led to the reversal thus far in 2020. But Lumpkin and new DeKalb police Chief Mirtha Ramos hope that things like increased pay for officers, a renewed focus on community involvement and a more holistic approach to crime prevention have helped.

DeKalb police received two pay raises in 2018, and were among the 2,300 public safety employees — everyone from firefighters to code enforcement officers — who got 4% pay bumps earlier this year.

Police and other front-line county workers have also received hazard pay during the pandemic.

Ramos, who was hired as DeKalb’s chief late last year after a long career in Miami, said the raises certainly help morale, hiring and retention. In an atmosphere where law enforcement agencies across the country have struggled to find and keep officers, DeKalb PD has netted 56 new officers since the start of 2019.

The department’s current staff of 743 sworn personnel is its highest since 2016.

“Every day we’re doing something better than we did the day before,” Ramos said. “Who wouldn’t want to work in that environment?”

More manpower can help prevent crime, but that’s only part of it.

A stronger emphasis on community-oriented policing — everything from youth programs to merely encouraging officers to get out of their cars and engage with people — helps foster relationships and build trust, Ramos said.

During the pandemic, DeKalb officers have played a big role in mask and food distribution events organized by the county, giving them another chance to interact with residents in a non-enforcement capacity.

Ramos said the department has also worked to build better relationships with everyone from apartment managers and local faith leaders to mental health professionals and officials in the local school system.

“It’s not just a police problem,” Lumpkin said. “It’s a shared responsibility.”

DeKalb’s progress on homicides is made even starker by what’s happening in other areas, both nearby and across the country.

In a report published earlier this month, the New York Times found that homicides were trending up in 20 of the 25 major American cities they examined.

And through mid-July, homicides handled by the Atlanta Police Department were up by 31% compared to the same period last year. In Gwinnett County, DeKalb’s neighbor to the east, homicides are up more than 60%.

“I’m hoping that what we’re doing is clicking, that all of us working together is making a difference, our partnerships are making a difference,” Ramos said. “And let’s not take away form the fact that we have really good officers who are putting their hearts and souls into these cases.”