Can new chief take DeKalb police to ‘the next level’?

DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos (right) speaks with members of the DeKalb County police department during a community roll call at the Wesley Center Square shopping center in Decatur, Wednesday, January 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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DeKalb County Police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos (right) speaks with members of the DeKalb County police department during a community roll call at the Wesley Center Square shopping center in Decatur, Wednesday, January 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

The new DeKalb County police chief stands in a grocery store parking lot on Wesley Chapel Road and delivers a message to dozens of assembled officers.

Tell me what you need, she says. I’m ready to help, she says. I want to make your job easier, she says.

They are words that Mirtha Ramos knows the officers have heard from other people in her position. She hopes the officers are still listening.

Ramos became DeKalb's newest police chief — and the first woman to ever fill the role — late last year, ending a long career in Miami. She inherited a department with plenty of issues.

ExploreRELATED: How DeKalb police are responding after homicide record

By the time she officially took over on Nov. 4, the county had already set an all-time record for homicides in a year. Other violent crimes and property crimes were trending down, but the long-held perception of a crime-ridden DeKalb wasn't going anywhere.

Hiring more officers was, and is, a struggle. Keeping existing officers may be a more important piece of the puzzle.

So while Ramos has to continue asking officers to do more with less, she says one of her top priorities is making their lives easier.

Providing things like better equipment or more backup, the thinking goes, can create a better work environment. That begets higher morale and more officers sticking around — which, hopefully, leads to a safer community.

“I’m convinced,” DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond said, “that she can get us to the next level.”

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DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. (Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

A new challenge

Ramos is energetic, talks fast and asks a lot of questions. She was born to Puerto Rican parents and raised in what she describes as the inner city streets of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

“I was exposed to a lot of things, a lot of crime,” she said. “We had officers being shot at all the time. I was surrounded by narcotics, prostitution. I probably saw a little too much for a child.”

The environment was tough but also instilled in Ramos a desire to help people — and ultimately drove her toward a career in law enforcement.

First, though, Ramos took a job as a purchasing agent at the Peruvian navy’s outpost in Philadelphia. She could speak Spanish and the hours were flexible, a plus for a young mother still working on her degree.

The job eventually presented an opportunity to transfer to Miami. She stayed with it for another few years but joined the Miami-Dade Police Department in 1997.

Over the next 22 years, Ramos rose from officer to division chief.

By the end of her time in Florida, Ramos had a master’s degree in psychology of leadership, a diploma from the FBI’s National Academy and was responsible for 1,000-plus employees — more than she’s overseeing in DeKalb.

Ramos said she was happy enough in Miami. But when someone alerted her to DeKalb’s opening, she stashed the printout under her keyboard and looked at it every few days. Inspired in part by one of her sons’ own departure from Miami, she decided she was game for a new challenge.

She was one of 105 applicants and four eventual finalists for the job.

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DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.(Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.(Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

caption arrowCaption
DeKalb police Chief Mirtha V. Ramos, who started in November, discusses her first couple months on the job, her background and her vision for the department, at the DeKalb Police Headquarters in Tucker, Georgia, on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.(Photo/Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

‘More than money’

In her first few months on the job, Ramos has made it a mission to be everywhere at once: roll calls, community meetings, court intervention programs. She said she gets about five hours of sleep a night.

While much of Ramos' bigger picture focus has been on trying to reduce DeKalb's homicide rate — which includes searching for trends that fed 2019's historic count of 125 — there's no shortage of other issues to confront.

According to information provided by the department, DeKalb PD hired 88 officers last year but saw a year-over-year net gain of just 26. At the start of this year, 107 of the department’s 820 budgeted positions for sworn personnel were unfilled.

There are about four dozen recruits in an academy class scheduled to graduate next month, officials said.

Under CEO Thurmond's proposed 2020 budget, police officers will be among the 2,300 public safety employees to receive a 4% raise. Ramos said that will help continue attracting new officers and keep existing cops happy.

But, she said, “sometimes we need more than money.”

Ramos said she’s expediting rifle training classes for officers after hearing concerns that they could be outgunned, literally, on the streets. She’s working to buy more heavy duty ballistic vests and provide more backup for patrol officers, with precinct-level investigators pulling road duty once a week.

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Members o the DeKalb County Police Department participate in a community roll call at the Wesley Center Square shopping center in Decatur, Wednesday, January 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Members o the DeKalb County Police Department participate in a community roll call at the Wesley Center Square shopping center in Decatur, Wednesday, January 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

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Members o the DeKalb County Police Department participate in a community roll call at the Wesley Center Square shopping center in Decatur, Wednesday, January 20, 2020. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

With competing priorities all around, there’s a fine line to toe. Ramos is also pushing for more community-oriented policing, encouraging officers to get out of their cars and talk to people.

“She does a great job of pushing us to think outside of the box,” Assistant Chief Tony Catlin said.

Ramos is hoping the combination of those efforts and others will have a big impact — because there’s plenty of work to be done.

The gathering where the new chief spoke on Thursday was a “community roll call,” where officers report for their shifts in a public place in hopes of sparking community engagement and establishing their presence in an area.

Just a few hours after the event, several men got in a fight behind the Kroger store in the same Wesley Chapel Road parking lot where it was held, police said.

One of them shot another and fled.

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