Good Police Work Requires Public Commitment

Courier Herald column for week of June 18th

This story got my attention, as many news stories shared via social media are designed to do.  The headline was intriguing.  Some would call it click-bait, but if it works, it works.

“Police say a man and his friends ran up a $100 tab, but he left his phone behind and got arrested for murder.”  Ok, I read that tweet and I was intrigued.  The headline on the accompanying story from Atlanta’s WSB TV indicated that the man had “dined and dashed” at a local seafood restaurant and ended up facing murder charges. 

To quote Will Farrell’s character Ron Burgundy from the movie Anchorman, “that escalated quickly.”  Given that another attempt to dine and dash from an Atlanta area restaurant recently ended in the shooting of a security guard over a Valentine’s weekend dinner, I was curious if this was the same case, a trend, or if the former charges had escalated to murder.

It turns out this was a separate incident.  A group walked out on a check at the Juicy Crab in South Cobb County, but one in the group left his cell phone behind at the table.  Per the article, someone from the restaurant was aware enough to see the group leaving, and was able to get the tag number of the car in which they left.  Police were called.

The responding police officer found the phone, which had an unlock screen that displayed the phone’s owner as a pre-set selfie picture.  Running the tag number, a name was generated that matched a driver’s license photo with the one on the phone.  That name was run through the Georgia Crime Information Center’s computer database, and it reported back that the suspect had an outstanding arrest warrant for murder. 

A few hours later, the suspect’s car was identified by license plate readers in nearby Brookhaven.  Brian Fort was arrested and sent to the DeKalb County jail, with charges pending for murder, theft by receiving stolen property, and possession by a firearm by a convicted felon.

So how does this move from an interesting viral news story to a column?  What struck me from the article was a quote from the Cobb County police department praising the original responding officer. 

Noting the exceptional initial police work, officer Arron Wilson was candid about how modern policing doesn’t always allow for an in-depth review of relatively minor crimes.  “All he had to do was come here, file a report, and go to the next call; the case would have been sent to an investigative detective.”

That’s not a knock on the police, as individuals or as departments.  That’s the stone cold reality we’re in, especially in more urban areas.  We are at a point where we simply have more crime than we have police officers’ time.

This problem has escalated over the past decade as national scrutiny of the bad actions of some officers have become a national gotcha campaign where law enforcement officers are too often presumed guilty by media until proven innocent.  Add to this the “defund the police” movement and you end up with some departments with critically low morale and an almost inability to retain and recruit officers.

It’s difficult to get accurate staffing counts from many police departments.  Some mayors are fond of playing “hide the football” here, where they will release numbers of positions, but don’t like to indicate how many of those positions are filled, nor how many of those officers are available for calls at any given time. 

Not filling open positions is a way to plug budget gaps elsewhere in municipal budgets.  Politicians at every level are reluctant to raise taxes to keep officer salaries sufficient to retain and recruit in an inflationary environment.

This incident also illustrates another problem we have when we ignore the “petty” crimes because limited police resources are consumed by investigating more serious incidents.  We’re living at a time when many of the non-violent crimes like the epidemic of shoplifting at retail stores is executed by organized crime rings.  Stopping criminals who are committing the more minor thefts will help take those participating in the larger criminal enterprises off the streets as well.

For all of this to work, however, we need enough police officers on the beat for each to do the initial response work carefully and thoroughly.  That requires sufficient funding, as well as a public commitment to stand behind those willing to don a uniform and take an oath to protect, and to serve.

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