COVINGTON, Ga. — A 6-month-old child was killed in Atlanta after being struck by a stray bullet. He was reportedly sitting in the backseat of a vehicle caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting incident.
Covington Police Chief Stacey Cotton said he fears this could one day happen in Newton County as he believes drive-by shootings are “ramping up” within city limits.
“It’s going to happen here,” he said. “It may not be a child. It may be an adult. We’ve actually had elderly people’s house be shot up. We believe it was just a mistaken house, and by the grace of God, the bullets went above their head and didn’t hit them.
“We’ve been very, very lucky. I just want you to know I believe it’s coming,” Cotton added. “Then we’re not going to be so lucky — the luck’s going to run out. And I’m very, very concerned about that.”
After a series of shootings in the Nelson Heights community Feb. 4-6, Cotton told the Covington City Council during its Monday, Feb. 7, meeting that incidents involving firearms had been an increasing problem, and it needed to be addressed.
Cotton posed one way to address the issue was for local judges to come down harder on suspects and increase bond amounts. He specifically referenced dealing with two suspects.
“Why this is so worrisome for me is because we had two suspects who were arrested on Jan. 3 for pointing a gun at another individual,” he said. “They were in a vehicle with an altered VIN when we got them. They had an AR-15 pistol with them with an extended magazine on it. An AR-15 pistol is basically an AR-15 rifle cut down to the size of a pistol. And they had $7,000 cash with them. These guys don’t have jobs.
“We charged each of them with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of theft by taking, one count of altered VIN and one count of possession of marijuana. They received an $8,000 or $10,000 bond and had to post 10% of it with a bail bondsman. If you have $7,000 cash in the car, you probably have $1,800 to get out of jail, or a family member could have posted a property bond.
“I’m very concerned that our court doesn’t see the seriousness of the offenses there and letting them back out.”
Cotton said he has spoken with Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown about the issue, and they plan to talk to judges as well.
People within the communities affected most were not being vocal about the issue, Cotton said, and some would not aid police during investigations out of fear. Cotton requested the mayor and council reach out to community members and help bridge the gap.
“I’m asking your help to reach out to your constituents to get them to understand the situation and understand that we’re not just filling out forms,” Cotton said. “We’re working as hard as we can to try to solve it, we put out a press release, we’re offering a reward for information, we’re waiting on the technology that will help us, such as an application you can put on your phone where if you see something, you can send it to us.
“We’re trying to take proactive measures to head this off,” he continued. “So we need you to reach out to the community and tell them to please help us if they can. If they hear something or see something, call 911.”
The chief said there was technology, such as new Flock cameras, on the way that would help law enforcement officers keep an eye on problematic areas. The incoming Flock cameras would have a sound element, “so if someone does shoot, it tells us where that shot came from so that we can probably get there quicker than if someone called 911,” Cotton said. He continued to say officers should also be able to review camera footage to find suspects’ vehicles and identify tag numbers.
Councilman Anthony Henderson said he was open to looking into expanding the surveillance system even further, specifically for problematic areas. He asked City Attorney Frank Turner, Jr., if it was illegal for the city to install cameras on light poles. Turner said it was OK, considering it was a public space.
While Cotton appeared appreciative of the idea, he told Henderson that type of project would come at an exponential cost. However, Henderson believed it was something worth looking into.
“We have to do something about it,” Henderson said. “Based on what I see and hear daily, if we don’t do something about it, someone is going to get hurt. I’m definitely for some type of surveillance in certain areas to prevent crime, because when you have people not talking, we need to do something about it.”
Councilwoman Charika Davis agreed with Henderson and asked Cotton to start crunching numbers and find out exactly what that cost would be.
“I definitely think that we need to step in and do something,” Davis said. “We need to do more than talk.”
Councilwoman Fleeta Baggett said the situation was bothersome, as was another issue she’s witnessed personally — a lacking ambulance service.
Baggett recalled having a heart attack in December. While at Piedmont Newton Hospital, she said there was a more than 40-minute wait before the next available ambulance could transport her to the hospital in Rockdale for particular services.
“I didn’t have 40 minutes,” she said. “I could have died on the floor in my living room or at the hospital over here at Newton because we didn’t have an ambulance that could transport me.”
As an alternative, she was transported in a nonemergency vehicle.
Baggett suggested the city strongly consider purchasing an ambulance that could be operated out of the fire department.
“I’d like to see it get on the agenda as soon as possible,” Baggett said. “We can’t keep throwing up these apartments everywhere and have no way to look after these people ... We can’t invite people to live in our city and let them die by gun fire, or whether it be because we don’t have an ambulance. We have to do this. We don’t have a choice.”
Councilwoman Susie Keck was on board to find a solution for both issues.
“I will support anything that won’t bankrupt this city so that we protect our citizens, and the same goes for an ambulance,” Keck said.
While he felt the city had much work to do, Councilman Kenneth Morgan reminded council members that the shooting issue should not be seen as a racial issue, but rather a community issue.
“I just want to encourage us as a council, a city and community, that we strive to work together and not make this about any other thing than our community,” he said. “It has nothing to do with Black, white, indifferent. This is not what this is about. This is what’s best for our community … and we move forward collectively as a city and not individuals.”
Nelson Heights is a predominantly Black neighborhood located in the southern portion of Covington.
Cotton said only a few injuries were reported from the four weekend shootings, but he said it could’ve been much worse.
“On the last [of the shootings], an officer was actually out taking a report at a person’s house [on Collier Street],” Cotton recalled, “and he heard the shots, and then found out later that his car had been struck by the bullets. They were actually trying to shoot at our officer; he just didn’t know it at the time.
“We’ve only had a few injuries,” he continued. “Nobody has been killed, but I am concerned by it because it seems to be ramping up. And it’s not just gang activity. It’s people mad because somebody said something about them on Facebook … whatever.”