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‘This is bittersweet’: Outgoing DeKalb chief reflects on 5-year tenure

DeKalb police Chief James Conroy speaks to the media in 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON / 2014 AJC file photo
DeKalb police Chief James Conroy speaks to the media in 2014. KENT D. JOHNSON / 2014 AJC file photo

When James Conroy took over as chief of the DeKalb County Police Department in 2013, he was the ninth chief in 11 years. Staffing issues and heavy turnover at the top led to a lot of instability in the state’s second largest police agency.

More than five years later, Conroy is stepping away from the department, as DeKalb boasts a decrease in crime and an increase in officers.

“This is bittersweet. DeKalb has been a part of my daily life since I was 3 years old,” he said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noting his family’s move from Chicago to DeKalb when he was a child. “It hasn’t sunk in that I’m leaving.”

Conroy’s retirement, effective April 30, was announced Wednesday. The county has begun a nationwide search for his successor, with a salary range for the position between $135,000 and $209,000.

RELATED: DeKalb police chief retiring; county starts 'nationwide' search for successor

In his 30 years with DeKalb police, Conroy, 50, has worked in what seems like nearly every possible division and role, from the homicide unit to the youth and sex-crimes division to administrative roles in the chief’s office. Certain moments in his career, good and bad, stand out in his memory. He remembers exciting times, like when Atlanta hosted its three Super Bowls and the 1996 Olympics.

He also clearly recalls when Sheriff-elect Derwin Brown was assassinated at the order of the incumbent sheriff Brown had just defeated in 2000. Conroy also has a precise memory of how many DeKalb officers have died in the line of duty — 13 since he’s worked at the department, and three since he’s been chief.

“That never gets any easier,” he said. “Each of those has a distinct impact on my career.”


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Conroy helped start the department’s crime analysis unit, which he said changed the way officers see and think about crime statistics. It initiated steady, real-time crime tracking, allowing the department to “better respond to crime, crime trends and patterns,” he said.

“This made it more scientific; you had good, hard data.”

Over the past 10 years, serious crimes have decreased in DeKalb, continuing into Conroy's tenure as chief after Dunwoody and Brookhaven became cities. According to statistics from the department, 2018 was one of the lowest years for crime in 32 years. (DeKalb's homicide rate in 2017, though, was higher than Atlanta's.) The department's rate for solving crime is also above the national average, he said.

Conroy partly attributes that to DeKalb taking on a more community-focused policing model. As chief, he implemented the use of officer-worm body cameras.

“In recent years, especially since the shooting in Ferguson, the focus on police departments changed heavily … we had to switch to a more transparent model,” he said, noting the importance of “building trust and legitimacy, and increasing the trust with the community.”

He noted that there is still room to improve the community relationship, especially how officers respond to people with mental illness.

DeKalb County has had multiple officer-involved shootings over the past several years. In one well-known case, a DeKalb County officer shot and killed an unarmed, naked veteran who suffered from mental health issues.

“We’re constantly looking how we can make improvements,” Conroy said. “The relationship with the community can always improve.”

Recruiting was also a big focus for Conroy, citing the declining number of officers before he took over. As chief, he oversaw a number of salary raises for officers, the latest of which was approved earlier this year. Last year, the department hired more officers than it lost, Conroy said.

“Our applications have increased as we made these efforts to improve the quality in life of our officers,” he said.

READ MORE: DeKalb latest metro Atlanta area to boost officer pay

After he retires, he doesn’t have concrete plans for what to do next.

“I definitely want to decompress for a little while,” he admitted. That includes spending more time with his two young daughters and supporting them in their cheerleading competitions.

As for the next chief of police, he thinks there could be great candidates both inside and outside of the department.

The future of this department is really strong,” Conroy said, adding that he hopes his successor will “leave the same type of mark, and keep the culture of this organization going in a healthy direction.”

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In other news:

Police are working to identify the woman.