On April 1, DeKalb County will have a new police chief.
Cedric Alexander, who currently oversees TSA security for Dallas/Ft.Worth International Airport, will take over a demoralized department hit with recent corruption arrests in a county where public worry about police understaffing was a factor in the creation of a new city last year.
But following the official hiring announcement Tuesday by DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, Alexander, 58, said he was walking into the challenge with his eyes wide open.
“One of the first things we have to do is encourage our police force,” Alexander said. “They really feel that punch in the face or gut, if you will, when rogue cops go out and do what they do.”
Two DeKalb officers were among 10 policemen accused last week in a federal drug sting. Three current or former officers have been indicted by the DeKalb District Attorney in other cases.
Those charges further battered a department already struggling to retain officers during county budget cutbacks over the past several years. Tuesday, the department had 869 sworn officers, 82 percent of what should be a 1,060-member force.
Sgt. Jeff Wiggs, president of the DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police, said any talk of improving morale would need to also address staffing levels and resources.
But he added that officers were glad to see that a permanent chief would soon take over. Assistant Chief Lisa Gassner has served as interim chief, but did not apply for the top post after William O’Brien stepped down in November.
“We hope to move forward in a positive way in correcting the problems in the department and the county so we all have a safer DeKalb,” Wiggs said.
Ellis said public safety remains the county’s top priority and that Alexander will report directly to him.
That represents a structural change. A public safety director had acted as a go-between for the CEO and the police and fire chiefs. County commissioners have long complained about the need and cost of the high-level post, which has been held by William “Wiz” Miller since Ellis created the job in 2009.
Miller’s announcement last week that he is retiring prompted officials to agree to eliminate the position, according to discussions in a commission budget committee. The $200,000 designated for the job’s salary and benefits will be used in part to fund a police academy to train 42 cadets by this summer.
Those officers will be needed to offset natural attrition as well as those officers who may leave DeKalb to join a police force being created by the new city of Brookhaven. The city has estimated it may hire 50-plus officers. About 89 DeKalb police currently patrol that area in the county’s North Precinct.
Ellis had previously announced that officers no longer needed to patrol Brookhaven will be re-assigned to other areas of the county. No changes will happen until Brookhaven has its police department on the streets sometime later this year.
“A well-trained police force with strong leadership helps create a safer and more vibrant DeKalb County with stronger neighborhoods,” Ellis said.
Alexander said he will focus on ensuring county leadership and residents support for a revived police department.
Officers and residents alike can expect him to show up, unannounced, on calls or as back-up at crime scenes. He also plans to live in DeKalb, a marked contrast to officers who publicly complain on a well-read blog about an unwillingness to reside in the county they serve.
“In spite of what some rogue officers may have done in the past, every time you respond to a call for service in this community, that becomes a healing process for you and for this community,” Alexander said. “When we respond, we respond positive and we respond in a way with our heads up high.”