By Daniel Silliman
In 2007, for the second year in a row, Clayton County saw a record number of murders. Homicides increased only slightly from 2006, however, and other crimes decreased, leaving officials hopeful for the county's future.
Looking at the year's statistics Monday, law enforcement officials expressed optimism that crime can be drastically reduced in Clayton County, and expressed a continued dedication to decreasing crime rates.
"We have a whole lot more work to do," said Jeff Turner, who was appointed chief of the Clayton County Police Department this year, "but I'm always optimistic and I feel even more so now."
There were 43 homicides last year, with 34 killed in unincorporated Clayton County, five in Riverdale, three in Forest Park and one in Jonesboro. There were three more homicides in 2007 than in 2006, only a slight rise when compared with the 100 percent increase the year before.
Twenty people were murdered in 2005 and, then, in 2006, there were 40 murders. No one has yet explained that sharp rise, though the county saw a similar jump in 2000, when the number of murders more than doubled from 1999.
Homicides in 2007, as related to the number from the year before, may indicate a plateau, and could mean the numbers will decrease in coming years.
During the last 12 months, the county police and some cities are reporting a decrease in other crimes. Clayton County Police Department statistics show a 9.8 percent decrease in first-tier crimes, including armed robberies, rapes, aggravated assaults and auto thefts.
Looking at the same category, the Riverdale Police Department reported a 10 percent crime decrease in 2007. "That is significant," said Samuel Patterson, Riverdale Police chief. "The metro-area's crime statistics are going to be up significantly. When you talk about us being down 10 percent, we must be doing something right."
Both Turner and Patterson attributed the crime decrease to so-called progressive policing policies and community-oriented policing programs, including increased citizen-involvement, directed patrols, and keeping a close watch on weekly crime statistics and patterns.
"There are a lot of police departments," Patterson said, " that tend to isolate themselves to some degree. Very often, the police are well intentioned, but they only see crime from a police perspective, whereas a citizen might see it a little bit differently. The citizen doesn't have a badge, doesn't have a gun, doesn't have the ability to arrest someone or take property away, but the citizen looks at the everyday problems of life. What we did, what we thought, was why don't we get these citizens together and ask them what's important, take those suggestions to heart and incorporate them as we can."
Turner said he saw an immediate change, when the county police began reaching out and talking to the community, "preaching that you can't turn your head" away from the crime problem plaguing your neighborhood. Since March, the county police have put on 106 crime-prevention programs and 46 youth-crime-prevention programs. Phone tips to the department have increased by about 50 percent.
The credit for any decrease in crime, Turner said, will be shared by hardworking officers and citizens who took an active interest in making their neighborhoods safe and secure.
"We require, and we will need, their help, their participation, to fight crime," the police chief said. "I knew once the community bought in and started taking ownership, we were going to see an immediate impact on the crimes being committed."
It is not clear, however, that murders have been affected by the community-oriented policing programs. Law enforcement experts say murder is one of the most difficult crimes to prevent, but local officials hope the rising murder rate may have been curbed in 2007, and may decrease in the future.
District Attorney Jewel Scott said previous years' homicides created an awareness for the need to combat domestic violence, which was leading to as many as half of the county's murders.
In 2007, she said, a large group of offices and organizations worked on domestic violence education, and the cooperation and education looks like it made a difference.
"What I did see was a decrease, this year, of homicides resulting from domestic violence," Scott said. "What was very disheartening to me, in 2007, was that we lost so many young people. There were a lot of drug-involved murders and gang-involved murders. So, I think we have to continue to be vigilant in fighting gangs and drugs and keeping our kids close to us. The community has to rise up to the challenge to protect the kids."
There were 10 domestic violence-related murders in 2007. There were 10 murders directly related to drugs, and as many as 13 more that detectives suspect may have been drug-related.
No one is yet predicting the number of murders the county will see in 2008, but 2007's statistics have officials sounding more hopeful than they did 12 months ago.
"I think Clayton County is the land of opportunity," Patterson said. "People are getting tired of those long commutes and people are going to want to move back close to the metro area.
"Riverdale and Clayton County are in a perfect situation," he said. "Those people are looking for a place where they can feel safe, where they can find affordable housing, where they can feel like the county and the city are progressive.
"That's what those folks are looking for, and I think that we are in a prime location. All we have to do is create that atmosphere of safety and security."