DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — The DeKalb County Police Department is looking forward to change in 2022. The force held a virtual Q&A session Tuesday night, taking questions and concerns from residents about the most pressing issues facing them this year.
Residents consistently brought up the number of traffic-related fatalities, violent crime response and staffing issues within the department.
DeKalb police said there were 134 traffic-related deaths in 2021, up 40-percent from 2020. In 45 of those cases, around a third of the time, those killed were not wearing seatbelts. Those numbers were compiled via the county's traffic accident database and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.
Assistant Chief Greg Ivanov said speed and alcohol also played factors in the rise in traffic-related deaths. He said 48 pedestrians also died last year. Ivanov encouraged pedestrians to use crosswalks, wear bright-colored clothes and to not dart into traffic.
“We’re also going to use public messaging and social media to help drive those numbers down and have a safer year this year," Ivanov said.
Ivanov said officers spent more than 600 hours on major interstates and in school zones last year, trying to crack down on speeding and enforce wearing seatbelts.
DeKalb Police said they were also targeting violent crime. 11Alive compiled data showing the number of murders, rapes and aggravated assaults in DeKalb County had trended up since 2019. Police said they were working with federal, state and local agencies to particularly crack down on street racing and gang violence as well.
Major William Wallace was optimistic about a new state law that stiffens penalties for those involved in street racing. He said the force's approach to gang activity involved community outreach and education in schools and summer programs, a unit focused on youth leadership and a focus on prosecution, using specialized patrol techniques and adding gang-related charges to criminal activity when applicable.
“We identify specific locations that have a high target of crime in those locations, and what we’re doing is funneling our resources in those areas," Wallace said.
As for the officers who respond to such cases, DeKalb Police Chief Mirtha Ramos expressed that she wanted to hire 100 additional officers this year. She said application numbers had gone down, as the force tightened its standards. Ramos said the department is currently accepting one out of every 50 applicants.
"We’re trying to raise our standards," Ramos said. "We don’t want people who don’t meet our criteria.”
Major Donnie James said the department continues to recruit out of a pool of interested military veterans, and they visit colleges, job fairs and community events to try and add more officers to the force.
DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond is proposing a pay increase of more than six-percent for officers in this year's budget, and Ramos said a bonus could be available for current eligible officers. The department is also increasing its 401k match to 3-percent, according to the police chief, and increasing its cost of living adjusted pay for non-sworn employees.
Ramos said the county was increasing the starting pay for new officers and investing money in recruitment efforts and new equipment, like radios, body cameras and vehicles. The department also plans to hire a clinical counselor, expected to be hired in February, to work solely with officers. Officers are also still getting hazard pay during the pandemic.
“We try to treat our officers well," Ramos said. "We try and give them a voice, make sure they’re heard and make those changes we feel may serve for a better work environment.”
Concerned citizens were also questioning of the department's communication, accountability and transparency. Ramos said that transparency only goes so far when it comes to policing.
"Transparency is sometimes limited by the law, policy and procedures, and simple respect for confidentiality," Ramos said. "Without trust, there’s no way we can move forward.”