Look­ing back on 40 years of lo­cal crime

Law en­force­ment has evolved

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - By Tyler Smith

When a calm and col­lected char­ac­ter like New­ton County Sher­iff Joe Nichols chooses to use words like “tremen­dously, dras­ti­cally and cat­a­stroph­i­cally,” res­i­dents should lis­ten, es­pe­cially when he is us­ing them to de­scribe the na­ture of crime in of New­ton County and Cov­ing­ton.

Dur­ing the past 40 years, the county and city have changed dra­mat­i­cally due to a steep in­crease in pop­u­la­tion. As a re­sult, the crime rate in the county and city has also been on the rise, Nichols said.

When he started in the 1970s, most calls were by known per­pe­tra­tors. Th­ese in­cluded fights and steal­ing. The vic­tims nor­mally had a tie with the per­pe­tra­tors, but there were still some “who done its.”

“Now the op­po­site is true,” Nichols said. “And the rea­son for that is pretty ob­vi­ous; we have more than tripled in size.”

Most of this growth has oc­curred on the west side of the county where much of the crime also takes place.

In the 1970s, Nichols said most peo­ple that were ar­rested were lo­cals who had had too much to drink, be­came an­gry and then broke the law. To­day most of the in­mates at the New­ton County De­ten­tion Cen­ter are not from the area. Many of the cur­rent pris­on­ers are from ei­ther re­cent ar­rivals to New­ton County or are from metro At­lanta. Nichols said crim­i­nals from At­lanta come to the county to sell drugs.

Cov­ing­ton Po­lice Chief Stacey Cot­ton said crim­i­nals look­ing in from the out­side think they can out­smart the small town po­lice.

“ Most of the new peo­ple that come in here are not nec­es­sar­ily bad peo­ple, but more peo­ple pro­vide more tar­gets,” Cot­ton said. “ But we are not a small town po­lice force and we can get them.”

There are cur­rently 580 peo­ple in­car­cer­ated at the NCDC. For many years, Nichols said, the county jail con­tained be­tween five to 10 in­mates on any given day. He re­mem­bers a time in 1975 when the jail had no pris­on­ers at all.

For sev­eral years now, Nichols and oth­ers in the county gov­ern­ment have been fol­low­ing the past growth of other coun­ties in or­der to pre­dict what prob­lems New­ton County will face in the fu­ture. Some­times the county is able to learn from other’s mis­takes, but New­ton County is cur­rently grow­ing faster than those pre­vi­ously stud­ied.

“ The prob­lem now is that you don’t have the abil­ity to be proac­tive,” Nichols said. “ We are just try­ing our best to keep up. I think that will be the ma­jor prob­lem in the next few years.”

To han­dle this dra­matic shift in pop­u­la­tion, the county has al­lot­ted money for the hir­ing of 12 new deputies. The prob­lem, Nichols said, is find­ing 12 qual­i­fied peo­ple to take the job.

“ We need prob­a­bly 30 deputies, not 12, but if the ( New­ton County) com­mis­sion­ers gave me money for 30, we couldn’t fill the spots,” Nichols said. “All the spots we have opened now have not been filled.”

New­ton County and Cov­ing­ton have to com­pete with ev­ery other county and city sur­round­ing At­lanta.

CPD has been bud­geted for just one new of­fi­cer this year. Cot­ton said their re­search has de­ter­mined the de­part­ment needs at least seven new of­fi­cers.

“ We are just go­ing to have to work smarter and reeval­u­ate our ser­vices to our cit­i­zens,” Cot­ton said.

Ser­vices like work­ing private prop­erty ac­ci­dents could be cut in fu­ture years so the of­fi­cers can con­cen­trate on more se­vere crimes.

The NCSO has been forced to stack cases in or­der to deal with the most im­por­tant cases while un­der­staffed, Nichols said. When cases are stacked, deputies re­ply to the most im­por­tant case first and then at­tend to the lesser cases at a lat­ter time.

“ I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate peo­ple’s pa­tience with this,” Nichols said. “ If there is a break­ing and en­ter­ing in progress, we’ll get there right away. But if your lawn­mower is stolen, you might have to wait.”

Even though the of­fice is stretched a lit­tle thin, Nichols wants peo­ple to know they can still al­ways ask deputies for as­sis­tance.

“ Help­ing is part of our job and as long as I’m around, it will be that way,” Nichols said.

The sher­iff said he once fired a deputy for re­fus­ing to help an el­derly wo­man change a light bulb.

“ There are a lot of things we do that are nowhere in the law, but they need to be done,” Nichols said. “And I think that is part of the job.”

De­spite the ser­vices the NCSO sup­ply, Nichols still feels some want more than can be of­fered.

“I think John Kennedy got his fa­mous quote wrong,” Ni­cholas said. “ What he should have said is, ask what your coun­try and county can do for you. That’s the at­ti­tude it has changed to over the years. It is a ‘ me, me, me’ so­ci­ety.”

This “ me first” so­ci­ety might be one rea­son for the in­crease in ju­ve­nile crimes. Nichols said when he started, ju­ve­nile crimes were al­most nonex­is­tent.

“ Par­ents took care of that swiftly and, in some cases, se­verely,” Nichols said. “ We have a Latin phrase, loco par­en­tis, which means in the place of a par­ent. We have to deal with ju­ve­niles that have par­ents, but who have par­ents who don’t act.”

Nearly ev­ery day the NCSO is called out to a school ei­ther to ar­rest or speak to a stu­dent, Nichols said. Part of the ju­ve­nile prob­lem could be con­trib­uted to the in­crease in drugs in the schools.

Drugs have been around for years, but the kind of sub­stances used has changed. Meth has be­come a big prob­lem in the county, Nichols said.

“ Meth is the most dev­as­tat­ing and ad­dic­tive drug any­body has ever seen,” Nichols said.

He at­tributes meth’s pop­u­lar­ity to its low price and high ac­ces­si­bil­ity. The sher­iff said he wished he could bring in school chil­dren to see what hap­pens to drug ad­dicts.

“ Kids only see one side of drugs in Hol­ly­wood,” Nichols said. “ They see the glam­orous side of it with movie stars hav­ing fun and be­ing pro­mis­cu­ous. What they don’t see are the peo­ple we have re­strained with Vel­cro be­cause they are try­ing to pull their eyes out dur­ing with­drawals.”

Cot­ton and Nichols both ac­knowl­edged the in­crease in more com­plex crimes white col­lar crimes like iden­tify theft, com­puter fraud and morgue fraud. Th­ese crimes are re­cent ad­di­tions to the list of com­mon of­fences.

“ When I first started, we didn’t have to deal with that,” Nichols said. “ We didn’t even have com­put­ers.”

While white col­lar crimes have in­creased, so too have more se­vere crimes. Nichols said. Vi­o­lent crimes have in­creased both pro­por­tion­ally and in over all num­bers. 2007 is on cur­rently pace to set a record for the most mur­ders in a year in New­ton County.

So far, ar­rests have been made in all the cases. In fact, Nichols said there have been fewer than half a dozen un­solved mur­ders in New­ton County in the past 30 years.

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