The long view of the law
Decatur, Ga. – Sgt. Jennifer Ross’ office is on the bottom floor of the Wells Fargo building on East Ponce. Her cubicle is decorated with pictures of family members and a poster trumpeting the prison sentence of a convicted felon.
She’s been a police officer for 17 years and is the daughter of an Atlanta Police officer. These days she wears plain clothes, business casual.
In the middle of our recent interview, her back straightened and she cocked her head, listening to a voice on the police radio.
The radio had been humming with police traffic for more than an hour since our interview began. The voice I heard didn’t sound any different than the voice I’d heard five minutes before.
“We’re attuned to that,” Sgt. Ross explained. “Each of us can hear the other one key up.”
Decatur has a low rate of violent crime, but a glut of media coverage of some high profile incidents has put the Decatur Police Department in the spotlight.
What’s happening in Decatur is part of a broader trend in East Atlanta, Sgt. Ross said.
Criminals don’t really study geographic boundaries, but Metro Atlanta residents take pride in them.
They will hold accountable the government closest to them.
I spoke with Sgt. Ross for nearly two hours about her job, life as a police officer and the recent “crime wave” in Decatur. During our interview, Deputy Chief Keith Lee and Chief Mike Booker dropped by to say hello.
Chief Booker is a big guy, but he has a small-town friendliness that’s more Mayberry than big city.
We chatted only briefly and he told me he liked a recent article I wrote about crime statistics.
I felt a warning was in order.
“I can’t promise you’re going to like everything I do, but I promise I’ll always be fair,” I told him.
Chief Booker smiled.
“That’s what we like to tell people, too,” he said
For the last seven months the Decatur Police Department has fought to control its message in the face of increased attention on the city’s crime rates. While the media are fond of calling it a “crime wave,” the facts show the truth is a bit more complicated.
Sgt. Ross’ job isn’t dealing with complicated truths. She deals with perception.
Decatur Police are in temporary digs at the Wells Fargo Building, awaiting the completion of a new police headquarters on West Trinity Place, scheduled to open late 2014.
The space feels more like a corporate office than a police headquarters.
Sgt. Ross said she’s transitioning out of her role as a detective, working cases while she trains her replacement and moves into her new role as Public Information Officer.
She said her job was not created in response to concerns about a recent uptick in burglaries and robberies in the area. It had been in the works for some time, she said.
“(Chief Booker has) been looking at doing this for awhile,” Sgt. Ross said. “The administration, the chief: These are not people who do anything all of a sudden.”
She issues press releases, clarifies facts and represents the department at public meetings.
Sgt. Ross told me she was at a neighborhood meeting in Oakhurst the night before our interview.
“I talked about the robbery at the 400 Block of Fayetteville Road,” Sgt. Ross said. “The last one we had was on Aug. 3. A couple was walking from their home in Atlanta, up Fayetteville Road toward the East Lake-Oakview intersection. They heard running behind them and were encountered by two teens. One pointed a gun at them.”
Sgt. Ross said the couple emptied their pockets and the teens took the loot and ran back to a gray Dodge Charger.
Sgt. Ross made these points about the Aug. 3 robbery:
– The couple was a block from the city limit.
– There was an officer in the area.
– A witness saw the crime through a window.
– The robbery took 30 seconds.
So what do you do when someone runs up to you and points a gun in your face, I asked.
Sgt. Ross said at that point, your options are limited.
“Give them what they want and be the best witness that you can,” she advised. “I live in Oakhurst and I walk to those restaurants. If someone has the drop on me – in our terminology – there’s no way to get to my gun. I’m going to give them what they’re asking for.”
She said the best thing you can do after a crime is also one of the best things you can do to prevent being a victim: pay attention.
Sgt. Ross conceded that as a daughter of a police officer, being hyper-aware of her surroundings is almost second nature.
“The average person isn’t wired like that,” she said.
She said victims should focus on, “Being the best witness you can possibly be.”
Sgt. Ross said people should try to remember as much as possible about what a suspect is wearing and what direction the suspect went after the crime.
There’s an outside chance an officer en route could catch the suspect fleeing the scene.
“Those kinds of crimes are fluid,” Sgt. Ross said. “They’re not still standing there when we get there.”
Who “they” are
One story has circulated around town lately, and it’s pretty scary.
It gets garbled a bit each time I hear it, but Sgt. Ross tells me the story in question comes from a report on East Atlanta Patch.
On July 20, a woman in Glenwood Park was taking things out of her Ford Explorer when two men, age 15 to 20, approached her and pointed a gun in her face.
According to East Atlanta Patch, the woman couldn’t make out what the man holding the gun was saying, but she heard the other man saying, “Shoot her, shoot her.”
They jumped into the woman’s Explorer and fled.
Are these the same people involved in Decatur’s robberies, I asked Sgt. Ross.
Sgt. Ross said she couldn’t be sure, but knows there have been arrests in Atlanta recently.
“What I have heard on more than one occasion is, ‘They seemed incredibly young and unsure of themselves and even more scared than me,’” Sgt. Ross said.
That sounds even worse than if they were professionals, I said.
“Exactly,” Sgt. Ross said. “To me that is scarier than a 40 year old.”
Sgt. Ross said police believe the robbers are a group of teenagers from an area in Kirkwood who hang out together.
In each robbery, there’s a moment of uncertainty that precedes it.
The suspects all use a similar dodge, asking the victim for the time or for directions, she said.
I ask about the “See something, say something” campaign. It’s an initiative that encourages people to call police whenever they experience that moment of uncertainty. But what if people feel nervous for an arbitrary reason, like a person’s race?
Does “See something, say something” promote racial profiling?
The race question
Sgt. Ross is ready for this one. She said after the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, there’s heightened awareness about the role race can play in how we interpret what “something” is and whether we should “say something” about it.
“They’re scared because of what’s happening but they’re also scared of how to react to it,” she said. “The bottom line is about the behavior.”
She said people need to focus on behavior, not skin color. Is there a car backing into your neighbor’s driveway that you don’t recognize? Is there a vehicle that you don’t recognize that keeps circling the block?
That’s the kind of “something” police are talking about, she said.
“We need to get away from what people look like,” Sgt. Ross said.
The only prevailing generalization I hear from Sgt. Ross involves the age of the suspects.
Georgia recently overhauled its juvenile justice code, but Sgt. Ross said it’s too soon to tell whether it has had an effect on crime rates. She’s more worried about the lack of support for kids who are arrested but aren’t placed in detention for their crimes.
“I think the problem is that there’s not a system in place strong enough for actual diversion,” she said. “These kids need to be treated on a case-by-case basis.”
In addition to being younger, attitudes about being caught have changed.
She recalled a recent arrest of teenagers who stole another teen’s iPod.
“They laughed and joked, thought it was a big party,” Sgt. Ross said. “They’re 15 years old.”
There are also limits to what police can do, she said.
Sgt. Ross told me that she recently zeroed in on someone attempting to rob a home in her neighborhood. As she was checking her neighbor’s house to make sure no windows were broken, she saw the Dodge Ram that caught her interest coming back to the house from the opposite direction.
As another officer moved into the area, the truck sped off. Police couldn’t follow because of a “limited chase policy,” Sgt. Ross said.
She brought this story up because she said it’s a question people often ask.
Chasing suspects poses a risk to innocent bystanders, so it must be used sparingly, she said.
“We can’t chase them,” Sgt. Ross explained. “We didn’t even have a crime.”
She also said the Uniform Crime Reports that I discussed in a prior article don’t always give the complete story about what’s happening.
Sgt. Ross said for example that “unfounded” robberies aren’t reported. She said there are cases when people report robberies when a bill or the rent is due and the contradictions in their story cause it to unravel. Then there are “clearance” rates, data that reflects when police make arrests on UCR charges.
For example, a “cleared” assault might be for an assault that occurred in a year prior to the current year, she said.
I asked her about the missing UCR data for Decatur for 1991 and 1994-1996. She said that UCR is a voluntary program and said that in the early 90s every UCR was recorded by hand. Even with the missing data, the beginnings of a downward trend are apparent in 1993 and Decatur’s crime rates are far lower today than they were in the late 80s and early 90s.
Sgt. Ross said the veterans at the department think the crime rate dropped because of redevelopment that occurred before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She said in the years prior, developers moved in and began buying properties in the city’s trouble spots. Oakhurst of the early 90s looked nothing like it does today, she said.
“Houses were being redeveloped and demolished. Families were trying to move into Oakhurst and the square,” Sgt. Ross said. “Downtown changed. The Olympics was the turning point.”
Today a cupcake shop occupies the space where the Oakhurst police substation used to be, Sgt. Ross said.
While there have been calls to bring the substation back to Oakhurst, Sgt. Ross said it is no longer necessary now that officers can file reports in their police cars.
“The substation was really more of a bathroom or a place to eat or use the phone,” Sgt. Ross said. “It was never staffed with a police officer because that’s a waste of an officer on the street.”
I asked if the city has considered installing surveillance cameras. Many areas of metro Atlanta are installing cameras all over the place, though the Orwellian overtones are off-putting.
Sgt. Ross said the city already has some, but not as many as some of its neighbors.
“I would love for there to be more cameras but that is up to the city,” she said. “We have some cameras. I’ll tell you that when we first started talking about cameras, there were a lot of people that didn’t like it. I would love for there to be video surveillance everywhere.”
That’s her cop DNA talking, of course. I admit to some partiality on the subject myself, because I like having evidence that’s hard to refute.
But, yeah, it does give me a bit of a chill.
After about two hours I figured I better let Sgt. Ross get back to catching criminals and whatnot. I certainly didn’t want to be the guy who kept one of Decatur’s most wanted on the streets.
We are still collaborating on some longer term projects. I’d like to break down the crime data even further to get a closer look at what’s going on in certain areas of the city.
Overall, I get the sense that while our police officials are obviously interested in being seen in the best light – who isn’t – they are also taking this stuff seriously. In some ways, they’re as spooked as you are.
They are listening to you. They want to make sure you’re listening to them, too.
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