I’ll start off by saying that I’m grateful for a fast response from the DeKalb Police tonight to a horrible shooting near my home. Two young men from the Aberdeen neighborhood east of Pine Lake are dead.
I was writing on my porch around midnight when the gunshots — some kind of rifle or machine gun, I suspect — woke everyone within a mile of us. It sounded like 30 or 40 shots, rapid fire, louder than anything I’d heard here before. I wanted to dismiss it as fireworks, but the thump had a rhythm and a ring, and it was just too loud. It took a moment for the dread to register.
Facebook lit up. I could hear conversations in the background of the 911 call center, all about the same thing, when my frantic call connected. DeKalb Police had a dozen cruisers there within minutes, the first within seconds.
I don’t mean to detract from that. DeKalb has erased my concerns about response time.
But our county police have had a litany of use-of-force issues arise over the last year, and after what I saw tonight I am beginning to understand why. I found the conduct of officers on the scene to be deeply disturbing, despite the conditions.
For one, DeKalb arrested an Atlanta police officer who lives in the neighborhood. The fellow went to the scene to see if his son had been involved. He identified himself as a police officer. It didn’t matter. Police apparently didn’t give him a chance for that to matter. People at the scene told me they threw him to the ground and used a Taser on him, in front of neighbors who had come out to see what happened.
The crowd screamed at the police, telling them the fellow was a cop, and a neighbor, and belonged there, and it didn’t matter.
I know this man.
We met last year, when I was knocking on doors for Sheriff Mann’s campaign. (I’m not naming him until I’ve had a chance to talk to him.) He had a campaign sign in his yard … for another guy. We talked for a long time about violence in the neighborhood, about Pine Lake’s changing reputation, about policing in general, about politics. The neighborhood looks to this man as an intercessor between themselves and the police. This is the guy that keeps them safe.
Tonight, his wife told me that had he gone armed as he usually does, DeKalb Police would have simply shot him dead.
DeKalb’s recent track record supports her fear. Police shot an unarmed, naked man earlier this year. DeKalb police probably violated their internal use of force rules when they tased a man running from police three weeks ago. The man had climbed a chain link fence when he was hit. He fell and died. And last night, DeKalb Police managed to enter the wrong house, kill the owner’s dog, shoot the startled homeowner … and one of their own rookie cops in an act of friendly fire.
On paper, DeKalb has an extraordinarily progressive use of force policy. In practice, I’m wondering now. I think they’re going to have to charge the cop they tased tonight, just to keep someone from being fired for inappropriate use of force. They’ll do that, even though it may end this man’s career.
I am told half a dozen people had cell phone cameras out tonight, recording the incident. Police shined flashlights into cameras to keep them from recording effectively. I’ve asked people to upload those videos and send them to me.
It is a violation of DeKalb’s Police employee policy book, Section 4-1.16, “to prevent photographers from taking photos at crime scenes, fires, and accidents or at other incidents involving Department employees.” No punishment is named, which makes it a worthless rule. But it’s there.
It’s also a fairly straightforward violation of the 1st Amendment, and the subject of a federal consent decree that Atlanta Police routinely ignores.
Traumatized neighbors in Aberdeen milled around outside of the yellow tape. Young men screamed at the police in anger and at their friends in grief. No real effort came from the assembled sergeants and patrol officers to restore peace in the crowd, except to move the tape back another 50 feet and get pissy at people who asked why. I’m sure I’ll be told that they were doing incredibly important work … standing around watching the crowd go mad, and that no one could be spared earlier for a quiet human word for people unaccustomed to this kind of violence.
Lt. Fonseca, the watch commander (who is generally a standup guy) eventually emerged. I brought the camera problem to his attention. He shrugged, then told me to back off.
I’m not interested in heaping blame on any given police officer tonight. That’s counterproductive. And I’m sure I’ll hear all about how I have no business at a major murder scene (that’s all of 600 yards from my house.) But I believe in seeing things firsthand.
And from what I’ve seen, the force has a systemic problem right now that must be addressed. DeKalb has been bleeding talent to other agencies for years, and it’s become visible. The county has been running police academies to try to fill the ranks, but the exits of veteran officers has accelerated. The result is a police force that is substantially less experienced.
Consider that the county ran five academies between February of 2014 and January of 2015, graduating about 150 police officers. The county has 1060 slots, of which only about 850 are filled. (That was 900 in January.) One sixth of DeKalb Police, today, have less than 18 months of policing experience and the total strength has continued to fall despite a serious recruiting push.
Pay problems contribute to the bleed. A place like Sandy Springs can offer a much better package to an experienced officer. The county pledged to conduct a pay analysis across departments this year. It’s not clear to me how that turned out for police, nor whether a significant increase in police pay will result. Lifestyle issues — like requirements for police to effectively be permanently on call in ways other police departments don’t impose — also factor into the bleed, as does concerns about the health of the police pension fund in light of the county’s shrinking unincorporated tax base.
Events like tonight show how these problems — policy abstractions for quiet neighborhoods — play out in practice on the street. This was a moment when DeKalb Police could have cemented themselves as heroes in the eyes of this neighborhood. Instead, people are angry at them and afraid of them. This, despite gangbangers with heavy weapons killing two people tonight.
What the hell.