Editorial: DeKalb Police Department needs to notify the public about major crimes
As a reporter, I am somewhat spoiled when it comes to dealing with information coming from local police departments. I work with two agencies that I consider to be exemplary in notifying the public: Decatur Police and Atlanta Police.
When it comes to the DeKalb County Police Department, the agency responsible for protecting hundreds of thousands of people in unincorporated DeKalb and in some cities, it’s a different story. The communications team in that department has changed several times since I regularly started covering DeKalb crime news in 2015. Some of the people in that role have been adequate. Some have been abysmal. All have been overworked and unsupported.
None of the communications officials working for the DeKalb Police Department have ever been proactive in reporting crime news. They don’t routinely give the public or the media a heads up about a major crime when it happens. When they do anything, it is nearly always in response to a question from the media.
That strategy is a poor one and it reared its ugly head over the weekend when we learned via an alert sent to Emory Healthcare employees that there had been an attempted abduction on Monday, Nov. 25 at a busy shopping center. The alert came to our attention on Friday, Nov. 29, days after the crime occurred.
The attempted abduction occurred at the Decatur Square shopping center when an employee of Emory was picking up her food from Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar. A man, who hasn’t been identified, climbed into her vehicle and attempted to kidnap her. She was able to escape and file a report.
Remarkably, the alert sent by Emory Healthcare said there was a similar incident at Suburban Plaza that police were also investigating. The DeKalb Police Department says it has no record of a similar incident, but I am skeptical that there wasn’t another crime in the area. Currently, the most reliable and timely source of information has been Emory Healthcare.
When I first asked police for information about the kidnapping attempt at Decatur Square, they initially gave me a report that differed from Emory’s report on one important detail. At first, DeKalb Police said the crime occurred in a parking deck at the hospital. Only later did they follow up with a press release sent to all media that confirmed what Emory had originally said: this happened at Decatur Square, north Decatur’s newest shopping center and a hub of activity in our community.
So, for now, I can’t completely rule out that another crime occurred in the area and police just don’t happen to have their hands on the details for whatever reason.
Of course, if DeKalb Police had notified the public about this situation immediately after it happened, there would be fewer questions about whether the police department is giving us all the relevant information.
I should note here that I respect our police officers and do not envy them their task. Policing is hard and responding to numerous media requests when you are overworked is even harder. The communications team has always been professional in its dealings with the media, which I appreciate.
I don’t think DeKalb Police failed to notify the public about the kidnapping attempt because of some nefarious intent. The lack of notification is an institutional failure. For far too long the public has been left out of the DeKalb County Police Department’s public communications strategy.
This is not my first experience of being completely unaware that something terrifying had happened in my neighborhood. Last year, DeKalb Police waited a full 24-hours before notifying the public about a murder that happened in the greater Decatur area. Initially, it was thought to be a home invasion. Only later did DeKalb Police say they believe it was connected to an alleged marijuana trafficking business.
Once again, the information only came out because I bugged the Police Department for it. Were it not for my tipsters, odds are I wouldn’t even have known about these crimes. And it makes you wonder how many crimes in DeKalb don’t make the news simply because no one thought to tip off the press.
Some members of law enforcement may not like the press, but when it comes to crime news, we are indispensable. We can publish information quickly and disseminate it to a wide audience. Media coverage can generate leads that help clear cases.
Atlanta and Decatur Police appreciate this. Both departments routinely notify the public about crimes before anyone in the public notifies the press. Both turn to the media to help provide critical safety information and solicit the public’s help in solving cases. It’s not always a chummy relationship. We step on each other’s toes occasionally. But we respect each other’s roles and recognize the roles we can each play in keeping our community informed and safe.
But the DeKalb Police Department often treats the public and the press that represents them as an afterthought, a hassle to be contended with instead of someone who can play an important role in public safety.
Apparently, our elected leaders also fail to grasp the problem.
A reader contacted the DeKalb Police Department and a county commissioner to voice their concerns about the lack of public notice about the recent abduction attempt.
A major with the DeKalb Police Department offered to discuss the “carjacking” and said they would arrange a meeting with the Medlock Park neighborhood soon. The chief of staff for Commissioner Jeff Rader provided a response to the reader that was even less encouraging.
“The precinct command believe this to be more likely a carjacking, which increases during the holidays, and not an abduction attempt,” Rader’s chief of staff told our reader. “I realize this may not allay your fears, but please know that if there had been a serial case, the police would have held a press conference to inform the public. DeKalb has stepped up patrols in the area and this case continues to be actively investigated.”
Note the subtle downplaying of the crime here. Even though DeKalb Police have issued a press release calling the incident “an attempted kidnapping,” now our county officials are calling it a “carjacking,” as if that’s less dangerous or terrifying. And if what Rader’s chief of staff is conveying here is accurate, the county police believe a violent crime must happen more than once before the police department should notify the public.
And what if someone winds up seriously injured or dead the second time?
The DeKalb County Police Department’s lack of public notification, and the county’s specious defense of it, is putting the public at risk. My family shops at Decatur Crossing every week. Many of us do. And we would’ve appreciated a heads up that someone tried to kidnap someone there last week.
DeKalb County has a new Police Chief and I hope she’s reading this. When violent crimes happen, we need to know about them ASAP. We don’t need to wait a week to hear about it.
Respectfully, Chief Ramos, your department’s current communications strategy doesn’t cut it.