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Looking back on 40 years of local crime
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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.