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Lovejoy Police Department takes shape

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

For years, the 2.2 square miles that make up the City of Lovejoy have been patrolled by no more than two officers at a time, both from the Clayton County Police Department's South Precinct. Since last month, however, the officers patrolling Lovejoy's streets have been wearing city uniforms.

For the first time since it's incorporation, Lovejoy has it's own police department. Officers, using city equipment and police cruisers bearing the city's logo, went out on their first patrols on March 15, according to police officials.

Assistant Police Chief Mark Harris assumed the role of the department's top official long before the city had any other officers. In October of last year, he began the task of helping Lovejoy establish a department of its own, drawing on his past experience as a Clayton County patrolman, a former Clayton County Sheriff's chief deputy, and a former assistant chief and chief of police for the City of Jonesboro.

Today, the Lovejoy Police Department consists of an assistant chief, a sergeant, seven patrolmen, and one administrative assistant. At its disposal are six police cruisers and two all-terrain vehicles.

While the department is small, and currently depends on assistance from Clayton County Police to round out its patrol shifts, Harris said having a department of dedicated Lovejoy officers helps with community-oriented policing efforts.

"With the growth in the area, it [the Lovejoy Police Department] provides the citizens with a little more protection, and they can be more familiar with the officer," Harris said. "There is a big difference in visibility ... officers getting out and talking to the citizens. [Under Clayton County police patrols alone], it would be one officer per shift ... sometimes it would be two officers around the weekend or on holidays. I think they [city officials] wanted to become more community-oriented, starting neighborhood watch groups, doing our own investigations."

Sgt. Michael Gaddis, the department's second-highest ranking officer, said having extra boots on the ground in Lovejoy neighborhoods has helped combat crime in recent weeks. He said that since the department started doing patrols last month, it has captured several burglary suspects tied to a string of break-ins in the Southfield Townhomes subdivision.

"It [the subdivision] was having a lot of vacant houses and houses for sale, so there was a lot of vandalism," Gaddis said. "Since we made the arrests, things have backed down a little bit. The ones [citizens] I have dealt with, they are happy we have our own police department. That makes the citizens feel a little more confident."

Lovejoy Councilman Bobby Cartwright, who was instrumental in helping start the department, said the city has been working toward having its own police force for the last three years. He said he believes having the department will allow the city to plan bigger events.

"We have a large fall festival every year, [plus] the Open Air Market, starting on June 19, [and] the Mayor's Park opening on July 5 ... it's going to enhance the city with all of it's new endeavors," Cartwright said. "I think the biggest benefit is public awareness. The public knows that the police department is here, and it's theirs."

Cartwright said Harris will lead the department as assistant chief until the city hires a police chief. However, the city has no immediate plans to hire a police chief, he said.

"We're not even discussing it [hiring a police chief]," Cartwright said. "The immediate need was to get the department up and running. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. I think it's very important to start slow and grow, with no mistakes."

Harris said the top priority of the police department will be to get citizens and the business community more familiar with the police force through neighborhood-and business-watch groups. He added that in the next few months, he would like to hire "three to five" more officers, so the department can be "more proactive, instead of reactive."

"We want them to feel like if they need help, they can get help," Harris said. "Right now, I think it is going really well."