01/06/2006

Atlanta getting handle on crime, chief says

DON PLUMMER

Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

By all accounts, George Hatfield is a straight arrow cop, but Cobb County's police chief admits he isn't above stealing - good ideas, that is.

Especially ones that go right to the bottom line for the manager of Cobb's 450 officers --- Cobb's crime rate.

"What's wrong with that?" Hatfield asks. "I'll take anybody's ideas if they will help improve the service we provide Cobb citizens."

One idea Hatfield admits pilfering from other jurisdictions is a real-time computer crime-profiling program used by Atlanta police. The Atlanta COMSTAT crime tracking program is based on one pioneered in 1994 by the New York Police Department.

Hatfield, who completes his first year as chief later this month, said the program will allow him to get a better handle on Cobb's crime trends.

In 2005, several of those trends went in the wrong direction.

Six of the eight major crime categories in Cobb --- murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, vehicle theft and arson --- were on pace to equal or exceed totals in 2004.

Hatfield said reductions seen in burglaries and vehicle thefts are direct results of changes implemented since he took over as chief last January.

"We focused on areas where these crimes were out of hand and have seen real reductions," he said. "We will add other crime areas to our priority list in 2006, and I expect equally good results."

Homicides increased after dropping significantly in 2004. Fighting the trend may require better drug enforcement, Hatfield said.

"About 80 percent of our homicides are drug-related in some way or other," Hatfield said.

Hatfield said the county's rising population and shifts in demographics that have brought more low-income and minority residents from Atlanta's core into Cobb contribute to rising crime rates.

"Housing trends do affect crime statistics," said Hatfield. Another factor drawing criminals to Cobb is easy access to escape routes on three expressways, he said.

Beginning this month, Cobb commanders will use the detailed information from the crime tracking program Hatfield has dubbed Cobbstat to focus the work of detectives in the county's five precincts.

Comstat, the crime statistics program Cobbstat is based upon, is more than a computer, Hatfield said. It's a process by which crime statistics are collected, computerized, mapped and disseminated quickly. Officers are held responsible for the crime in their areas, and all crimes, even so-called minor offenses like loitering or defacing property, are pursued.

Cobbstat also will be an accountability program, Hatfield said. However, it won't be used to point fingers at officers or deflect criticism from police leadership, he said.

"We're already good. I just want us to be great, and this will be a way of turning communications between officers in a different area up a notch," Hatfield said.

Mini-precincts is another idea Hatfield said he wants to adopt from other departments.

"We want to put officers into the communities where we see the need for better service," Hatfield said. The added visibility of officers in these communities may encourage residents to provide more information on crimes, he said.

One mini-precinct may be in a surplus county library on Mableton Parkway, another in a fire station scheduled to open in the Six Flags Drive area, he said.

That plan is among several new items Hatfield said he will be pushing at a county planning retreat later this month at Callaway Gardens.

Hatfield also will push for more cops. Ten new positions were approved by commissioners last year, but more are needed, he said.

County police have about 20 job openings. But the shortfall is greater, he said, when you take into account 17 officers on military duty and 20 others awaiting training who won't be on the streets for nearly six months.

To relieve the shortage of officers, Hatfield said, he is juggling staffing and shift hours in an effort to bulge the police presence during times when most 911 calls occur. By strategically overlapping officers' 10-hour shifts, Hatfield said, he can put more "eyes on the street" to spot criminal activity. Another change is putting two officers in a car in some areas.

"Having two officers patrolling together just automatically increases their ability to spot trouble," he said.

Gangs, a problem Hatfield identified shortly after taking office, are still a top priority, the chief said. During 2005, Hatfield transferred officers into the Cobb Anti-Gang Enforce ment unit, doubling its size. He also moved the unit out of space shared with park police to a building on the headquarters campus.

At least some of the new positions Hatfield hopes for this year would be used to free experienced officers for undercover and plainclothes assignments to fight gang activity, including drug dealing.

Domestic violence is another area where Hatfield said he will focus.

"We'll be looking for more effective ways to investigate domestic violence complaints," he said. 
 
January 5, 2006

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