By Linda Looney-Bond
Clayton County Sheriff Kem Kimbrough said Wednesday that clearing a backlog of arrest warrants, increasing law enforcement presence in the county, and upgrading technology, are among his top priorities, approximately 180 days into his administration.
Kimbrough made the comments while speaking to more than 40 Clayton County Rotary Club members during the organization's weekly meeting, held at the Clarion Hotel, 6288 Old Dixie Road, Jonesboro.
The sheriff said his office is making steady progress in processing a backlog of arrest warrants the administration inherited. "We have prioritized most of the warrant service so that we're going after the worst offenders first - going after those folks who are repeat offenders, violent offenders, felony offenders," said Kimbrough.
"When I took office in January, we had 19,581 warrants outstanding in Clayton County," he said. The statute of limitations ran out on about 3,500 of those warrants, he said, causing them to be dismissed.
That left about 16,000 new and outstanding warrants to be served, according to Kimbrough.
"One of the things that I'm proudest to tell you ... is that we have eaten that backlog, and we're down to about 14,600 warrants now. Bear in mind that we still get new warrants everyday. We get an average of anywhere from about 250 to 1,000 warrants per week, so we have served those warrants, as well as started eating into the backlog of warrants that we had," he said.
Kimbrough also told the group of local business owners and community leaders that county residents should prepare to spend more dollars to expand and increase public safety services.
"When I've asked people, in what communities do you feel safe, it's always a community that has invested strongly in public safety, so you see presence. You just see them everywhere," he said.
"Two excellent examples ... the Fayette County Sheriff's Office has an excellent reputation for just being there. If it's the person running radar up and down 85, that is visibility, that is presence.
"In Henry County, on North Henry Blvd., there have been periods of time when I have counted nine police officers in a one-mile stretch," said Kimbrough. "So that's the game we're playing. We've got to play that same psychological game with our citizens. Everywhere they turn around, they see a car with blue lights on it, and they see somebody in a uniform," he said.
Kimbrough said he understands that all county agencies are experiencing a budget crunch. However, he said, as public safety goes, so goes the county.
"The discussion around economic development has always centered around, can we build water and sewer infrastructure, production capacity, and do we have adequate roads? You can have the best roads," he said, "but if people are worried about getting carjacked, they're not coming."
The Sheriff's Office did receive budget approval from the Clayton County Commission last month to hire 12 additional correctional officers for the Clayton County Jail, along with funds for equipment for those officers. Kimbrough said the new personnel and equipment will cost approximately $500,000. However, he said, more is needed.
When asked about gang activity in the county, Kimbrough told club members that about 60 active gangs are currently operating in Clayton County. "Right now, the gang enforcement activity in Clayton County is led by the Clayton County Police Department. We are a partner in support of that activity," he said. "Our definition of an active gang is when we can identify two or more people who share similar characteristics, tattoos, appearance, and claim a geographic area for purposes of criminal activity.
"Their ages tend to be younger than I think we have been used to," he said. "I think prevention is really the key."
Kimbrough said law enforcement leaders in the county are discussing targeting first-and-second graders to educate them early about avoiding gangs. "Our kids are being exposed to this whether or not we expose it to them," he said.
He said his office is also working to upgrade the Sheriff's Office's web site to include information on persons wanted on outstanding warrants. He said he hopes to "put them on a computerized map, and put that on our web site, so that you guys can pull up your neighborhood list and say, 'I know that guy.'"
He hopes to have that information on the web site by the end of the year.
Raymond Baggarly, sergeant-at-arms for the Clayton County Rotary Club, who owns a car wash in Morrow and an answering service in Forest Park, said he was encouraged by the sheriff's comments. "I felt like he was forthright and honest about the challenges that he has as sheriff," said Baggarly. "I know there's budgetary restrictions on all the governments. It's frustrating for us taxpayers, but on the other hand, we all want to be safe and sound.
" l think he has a good grip on the issues, and I think, in time, he will continue to make progress in making the sheriff's department far more efficient and effective than it has been in the past, "Baggarly said.
"I was just really impressed with him," said Rotary Club member, Janet Gilbert, who owns a sign-production business. "Having my business in Clayton County, I'm encouraged that something may change, now, and we've got somebody that really is focused on the issues."