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PUBLIC SAFETY

Decatur crime, shootings down in 2019, but homicides at 23-year high

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DECATUR — Crime in Decatur overall trended downward in 2019, with a drop in shootings as well as violent and property crimes compared to the year before.

But a review of the data also shows the number of murders, 11, was the highest reported in a year since 1996.

Police say they are working to get guns off the streets, develop strong community relationships and target gang associations at the heart of continued offenses. Residents are joining in crime prevention efforts with neighborhood watch groups and awareness campaigns.

“We want to continue to lower everything,” Decatur Police Chief Jim Getz said last week. “But for me, the big ones are the shootings and homicides and the burglaries. We want people to feel safe in their homes.”

Reports show 83 shootings were recorded in 2019, a decline of 7.7% from 90 shootings the year before. There were 375 violent crimes, compared to 444 the year before. Property crimes were recorded at 1,986, a five-year low that was 87 below 2018.

Homicide victims range in age from 1 to 38. Arrests have been made in more than half of the cases, and police say they have suspects in others.

Of the reported shootings, 38 were classified as “attempts,” meaning no one was struck by the bullet. Another 45 incidents resulted in 46 people being shot. Police arrested 24 people in relation to the shootings, data shows.

Repeat shootings, including two murders, took place at four addresses. They were in the 3700 block of North Woodford Street, 900 block of West View, 1400 block of East Hickory Street and 500 block of South 23rd Place. Decatur police Sgt. Chris Copeland could not say if any of the shootings were connected.

“A very low percentage of your people are committing a high percentage of the crime,” Getz said.

Getz said the department removed 196 guns off of the streets in 2019, more than what he described as an average of 120 firearms seized each year.

Police are also closely watching certain street gangs. Getz said the department would continue to focus on people who police know are involved in shootings and gang activity, and he named “Jumpout” and “TMT” as two groups that officers are watching. Copeland said the department has found an increase in violence and shootings in places where members live or spend time.

“We’re coming after them,” Getz said. “If they’re out violating the law, we’re going to hold them accountable. They are a nemesis to the safety of our citizens.”

Dramatic changes took place in a few categories of crime. Burglaries have decreased dramatically over several years, going from 859 in 2016 to 442 last year.

But sexual assaults spiked more than 73%, from 30 reported rapes in 2018 to 52 last year. Decatur Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and Getz both said the increase could have been driven by the #MeToo movement, a growing societal awareness and willingness to talk about sexual assault after a number of high-profile cases involving celebrities in recent years.

“It would make sense in that people may feel better about coming forward,” Moore Wolfe said. “Hopefully they are, and hopefully it’s not a spike in actual crime.”

Solving murders

The police department’s published crime data is governed by guidelines for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which classifies homicides as deaths categorized as first- or second-degree murder.

Five other violent deaths also took place in 2019 but were not classified as homicides in the department’s reporting. Law enforcement found those deaths to result from an accident, self-defense or another person’s reckless behavior.

Two of the murders were of young children, 2-year-old Ta’Naja Barnes and 19-month old Jayden Comage. Ta’Naja’s mother pleaded guilty to murder and her mother’s boyfriend is awaiting trial on the same charge. Jayden’s mother is also charged with murder.

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George Kesner, crime prevention officer for the Decatur Police Department, speaks to residents at a new neighborhood watch meeting Thursday. 

The other nine murder victims were between the ages of 18 and 38. Circumstances varied, but police say suspects and victims often know each other in these types of cases.

Six of the murders are considered solved by the department, although legal cases are still pending in some. These include the murders of the two children as well as David W. Murray, 38; Curtis T. Hairston, 18; Marcel Whitfield, 32; and Demetrius Ford, 27.

In the past five years, police say, arrests have been made in more than half of the city’s murders.

“Any loss of life is horrible,” Moore Wolfe said. “There are more victims than just the people who died. There are moms out there mourning the loss of their sons.”

Speaking generally, the mayor said, the murders typically do not happen at random. She cited domestic situations, as when a relationship turns violent, or when groups of people target one another.

Getz said shootings and homicides often stem from gun violence between opposing groups. Domestic violence is more difficult to prevent, as it occurs in the privacy of residents’ homes.

“We can target the shooters and gangs, but the domestic type, you can’t really target that,” Getz said. “We usually don’t know about it until it’s too late.”

Police are still working to solve five murders that took place in 2019. The victims are Suave Turner, 28; Darrell Boey, 36; Christopher Stone, 24; Corey Laster, 33; and Tommy King, 20. These five cases represent a third of the unsolved murders from the past decade.

“In a number of unsolved murders, we have a good idea of who the suspect or suspects are, but we’re not at a point where we can charge them yet,” Copeland said.

Witnesses and others with information can be uncooperative with police. Cases can be solved with DNA evidence and fingerprints, but witness statements are key, police say.

“I applaud the citizens who work with (the police),” Moore Wolfe said. “The biggest struggle our officers have, and it’s around the country, is people won’t come forward and help them with the facts.”

She praised the work of what she described as the city’s phenomenal police department, with officers who go out each day keeping residents safe.

Anyone with information in any of these cases should contact police (217) 424-2711 or Crime Stoppers at (217) 423-TIPS (8477).

Residents fight back

While witness cooperation can be a struggle, other residents are willing — sometimes eager — to work with police. Groups throughout the city, operating under the umbrella of the Coalition of Neighborhood Organizations, focus on strengthening communication with neighbors and alerting one another to suspicious activity.

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President Shelby Hoffman speaks during a new neighborhood watch effort for the Ravina and Home Park area.

The NAACP Decatur Branch also is taking action, launching the “Blue Ribbon Committee on Safety and Re-Connection to the Community” in January 2019. President Jeanelle Norman previously told the Herald & Review the group will share action plans to combat violence in the city.

Norman said Thursday the committee hopes to share information in mid-April, which will include changes that can be made at home, school and in the community to deter and prevent crime.

“We will look at what needs to be done in those areas to reduce crime,” she said.

A new neighborhood watch is forming on the city’s west side. Residents in the Home Park and Ravina Park areas mobilized after becoming concerned with recent motor vehicle thefts, burglaries and traffic incidents. More than 60 people attended the first meeting on Thursday.

“We would just like to have our safe neighborhood back,” said Carol Blackwell, vice president of the group.

Members of the new group are asking for a traffic study in their neighborhoods after residents have seen vehicles speeding and disobeying traffic signs. Residents have felt unsafe in the past year, and especially the last six months, she said.

Officer George Kestner, the Decatur Police Department’s crime prevention officer, spoke to the residents to provide data and tips on crime prevention.

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Decatur Police Officer George Kestner speaks to a new neighborhood watch effort for the Ravina and Home Park area. Kestner spoke to a group of more than 60 residents at a meeting Thursday night.

“I know a lot of you are frustrated, you’re upset," Kestner said. “I understand. We are aware of what’s going on and we are going to address the issue. We have been addressing the issue behind the scenes.”

Nine burglaries from motor vehicles, two residential burglaries and five motor vehicle thefts were reported in the Home Park neighborhood between Feb. 2, 2019 and Feb. 2, according to Decatur Police Department statistics.

“A lot of times people are victimized by burglary, whether it be a vehicle or their house, and they don’t call us,” Kestner said. “...We want that to end.”

He emphasized the importance of reporting every incident so statistics are accurate.

“We suspect it’s about 70% juvenile and about 30% adult,” Kestner said. “A lot of kids (are) out there running around unsupervised, breaking into cars especially.”

Out of seven motor vehicle burglaries in 2019 in the Home Park and Ravina Park neighborhoods, Kestner said five of the vehicles had keys within access to the car. The West End was also seeing a similar pattern of crime last year, he said, prompting residents to create a neighborhood watch.

Kestner reminded residents to report something if it seemed suspicious, to keep valuables out of vehicles and to lock doors.

It’s a point the police department also took steps to reiterate in a Facebook post last week. Last year, 89% of car burglaries took place when the vehicle was unlocked, it said.

“Most often, a car burglary is a crime of opportunity,” said the post, which had been shared 65 times by Saturday. “If you leave your car unlocked, you just gave someone the opportunity.”

Across the city, motor vehicle thefts have almost tripled within five years, going from 62 in 2014 to 173 in 2019. Getz said the best thing residents can do is keep their vehicles locked to prevent cars from being stolen or broken into.

“The police can’t stop every crime,” Moore Wolfe said. “We have to do our part too.”

Contact Kennedy Nolen at (217) 421-6985. Follow her on Twitter: @KNolenWrites

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