• 88°

LaGrange police chief presents annual report to city

LaGrange Police Department Chief Lou Dekmar walked the LaGrange City Council through its 15-page annual report on Tuesday night, detailing data, trends and the effects of the pandemic on his agency.

COVID-19 has affected LPD’s operations, Dekmar said, but not to the point of debilitating it. Dekmar said that in 2020, nearly two dozen LPD employees were affected by COVID-19 or quarantined at some point.

“We were very fortunate in that those experiences were staggered.” Dekmar said. “And so, the impact as it related to being able to man a shift and also ensure that we have adequate detectives and investigators, were not seriously impaired.”

A troubling sign for the future, however, is that just 30% of LPD has sought the vaccine. Dekmar said he hoped more would participate.

“I will just express that it’s frustrating to me that people who are eligible, for whatever reason, are not choosing to take the vaccine,” Mayor Jim Thornton said, specifying that he said so as an individual, not in his capacity as mayor. “I think that is going to be the only thing that’s going to stop the spread of COVID and get us back to some sense of normalcy, is to have widespread vaccination.”

Councilman Tom Gore, a cardiologist, was perplexed at the resistance he’s seen to the vaccine.

“I don’t understand that. I don’t understand at all,” he said. “I have patients coming to me saying, ‘What do you think about this? Should I take this?’ Absolutely! I’m just jumping up and down, ‘Yes, yes. Yes.’ … So, I don’t know. I mean, all we can do is encourage people to do this.”

Dekmar said it was especially frustrating because officers are at high risk for COVID-19 and work together closely. He said he would continue to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Under the citizen complaints section of the report, 63 complaints were made in 2020. There were 57 in 2019 and 77 in 2018.

Complaints, Dekmar said, could be related to anything from use of force to a person being unsatisfied with how a crash report was documented. 

Of those 63, 18 were found to be instances where the performance of the officer was inconsistent with LPD standards. That number was 11 the year prior and 17 the year before that.

Arrests were down in every category under the uniformed patrol operations division — traffic violations, city ordinance violations, misdemeanors and felonies. 

The year 2020 saw the patrol operations make 2,675 arrests, down from 3,181 in 2019, which itself was down from 3,803 in 2018.

The traffic unit also saw a less busy year, with 2,189 crashes, two fatalities and 371 crashes with injuries. In comparison, there were 2,259 crashes in 2019, 417 with injuries and no fatalities. 

Dekmar theorized the decrease in crashes was likely due to COVID-19 and less vehicles on roads.

The canine unit saw an increase in calls for service from 3,386 to 3,791. Only one injury or bite was recorded.

Child abuse and other special victims numbers are “woefully low,” Dekmar said, compared to what he believes the reality is. The number of child abuse reports went from 312 to 190 from 2019-2020, while the number of domestic violence reports went from 439 to 356. Dekmar believes this represents not an actual decline but a decline in reporting due to people staying at home during the pandemic.

“These young people are not, unfortunately, in school, in a way that allows the identification and intervention of those kind of cases,” Dekmar said.

LPD had nearly identical number of code enforcement cases in 2020 as in 2019. Only 13 actually resulted in citations.

“What we strive with code enforcement is voluntary compliance,” Dekmar said. “So, once we put them on notice, and if it’s not addressed, then we follow up with a citation.”

Another problem exacerbated by COVID-19 was kids missing school. LPD’s court services unit issued 82 truancy letters to parents in 2020, “which is somewhat significant, considering the challenges we’ve had with the whole attendance issue, as it relates to schools being virtual versus in-person,” Dekmar said.

In the training department, Dekmar said the department continues to emphasize crisis intervention training. He said that in Georgia and around the country, 25 percent of those shot by police are affected by mental illness, demonstrating the need for such training.

Dekmar also said he hopes the state and federal government provide more resources toward mental health treatment. To illustrate the point, Dekmar remarked that in three years, LPD has interacted with the same person 70 times.

The school resource officer division has been less busy, with the Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD) program on hold due to the pandemic.

Dekmar did outline numbers for violent crimes, which the council has discussed at length in recent months. The council recently allocated funds for LPD to hire five more officers, as well as funds toward community groups that work with youth to lead them away from gang violence.

The total number of violent crimes was lower (149 in 2019, 130 in 2020), but homicide was at its highest since 1997, with seven murders. The number of rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults was relatively unchanged. Larceny was up from 1,331 in 2019 to 1,464 in 2020. Larcenies were in the 1,200s in 2017 and 2018.

“Despite what has been an upward trend, it is significantly less than what we saw in the ’90s,” Dekmar said. “And even in the mid-2000s.”

Even as LaGrange has grown by 20 percent since 1997, violent crime has declined over that term. The high murder count last year seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Dekmar has said he believes parole boards and the courts are partially responsible for the violent crime numbers for releasing people who should remain in jail or prison. 

Of the 69 property crime offenders LPD arrested last year, 42 were on supervision or bond. Of the 73 violent crime offenders they arrested, 43 were on supervision or bond.

Dekmar has asked the council to draft a resolution to send to the governor and state speaker of the house about people being let out of prison.

Criminal justice reform is fine, Dekmar said, as long as there is proper supervision and parole boards are making the right decision. He doesn’t believe they are.

“I’m convinced that it’s not merit based,” Dekmar said. “I don’t know what the metrics are, or why, but it certainly is not based on their history … They’ve got all these competing interests and pressures, and they’re responding. And they just need to hear from folks that are in a position to get this kind of information, that you may want to reevaluate your metrics.”

Dekmar believes parole officers may have trouble keeping up with people on probation because of the sheer case load. The parole board, he believes, is also overburdened.

“I’ve had a couple of friends that have been on the parole board, and they get a stack of somewhere between 30 and 60 folks a week,” Dekmar said. “They’ve got to read those files and then make a decision that’s life-altering.”

Thornton said that based on what he was hearing, more resources need to be deployed from the state to “triage the cases, to determine who really is likely to reoffend.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of violent crimes last year.