Fulfilling a campaign promise to get more public input into policing, Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett held his first town hall forum Dec. 12 at the Rockdale County Auditorium in Conyers. The sheriff boasted of many department improvements since he took office in January, and promised many more in 2014.
Comments from the audience of about 20 people suggested that public communications could be better. One man said deputies and residents should meet face-to-face more often to encourage crime-fighting, while a reverend complained of being unable to meet with department officials about an allegedly incorrect accident report.
“I actually welcome that (commentary),” Levett later told the News, after pledging to follow up. “It allows us to better our agency in a professional manner…We do want to build trust with the public.”
Flanked by most of his Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office command staff on stage, Levett reeled off a list of ways RCSO already has improved in “safety, accountability and professionalism.” For deputies, that means new equipment, new uniforms and a pay raise. For the public, it means the new Southside precinct station and more crime information, including a sheriff’s department Facebook page and the “CodeRed” crime alert system.
RCSO has conducted 38 internal affairs investigations of deputies since Levett took office—up from four cases pending when he arrived—and increased its staff to do so, he said.
Increased use of crime-tracking software has helped RCSO target crime, Levett said. After crime rates went up in the Salem Road area, deputies took notice and issued 241 citations and made 115 arrests in recent weeks, he said. But, he added, RCSO is also aware of the community behind the numbers.
“Just because we’re seeing (a crime rate) increase in that area doesn’t mean that area’s a bad area. It doesn’t mean Rockdale County is a bad county,” Levett said. “A lot of crime being committed is not (by])Rockdale County residents.”
Levett also listed some department goals for 2014:
•“Predictive Policing” software that attempts to predict where future crimes will occur based on trends and patterns. Those maps will become public as well.
• Improve the RCSO website.
•Crime alert apps for cellphones.
•Better SWAT equipment.
•Create RCSO’s first-ever five-year strategic plan.
•Bicycle patrols, especially on walking trails, a new initiative Levett mentioned to the News after the meeting.
“It’s not about the crime you have. It’s about how prepared you are,” Levett said in response to an audience question about whether Rockdale has enough violent crime to need more S.W.A.T. team gear. For example, he said, the current S.W.A.T. truck is an “old Dodge van” from the 1980s that “had to be towed from the scene” of its last use. If the worst happens, faulty equipment is “not safe for our deputies, not safe for our public,” he said.
Public input is a key part of Levett’s plans, and he repeatedly said he is willing to follow up with anyone’s questions by email or a personal meeting, time permitting..
One man in the audience suggested that better deputy-community relations would help to reduce crime, noting, “We are the eyes and ears” of the streets.
Levett noted that residents already have the civic “duty” to aid police investigations and said deputies will attend most any community meeting by request. But, he said, he will urge deputies to “try to stop now and again to make contact with residents outside.”
Rev. Tony Vance complained that he had been unable to get a response from RCSO officials about their allegedly incorrect report on his wife’s Thanksgiving night car accident. Vance told the News it was a “sloppy report” that got many basic facts wrong and incorrectly blamed his wife for the crash.
“I’m a man of my word,” said the sheriff, pledging to get Vance his meeting. “We appreciate your bringing it to light.”
“We do not sweep things under the rug,” added Chief Deputy Scott Freeman, who spoke with Vance after the meeting.
Levett will hold another town hall forum on Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Southside precinct, 3552 Hwy 20 South. He also held an online forum on Dec. 5, and has pledged to hold at least two town hall forums every year. For more information about RSCO, see facebook.com/rockdalesheriff.