Atlanta has about 500,000 residents and about a 1,600-officer police force. The DeKalb County Sherriff’s Office, which is responsible for about 500,000 people, has fewer than six hundred men and women in uniform.
Only about half these officers are available to respond to 9-1-1 calls. Many precincts only have a handful of field officers on duty at any given time. In response, the county has increased pay and offered lucrative financial incentives. However, DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond acknowledged that DeKalb County can’t possibly compete with smaller and more affluent communities in this area.
“In the end, there’s also this self-preservation that everybody has, including police officers,” Scott Mourtgos, from the University of Utah, surmised. “Police officers are making very difficult decisions under very difficult circumstances. And if they feel like they’re not going to at least get the benefit of the doubt, or possibly get charged for something that they at least perceive is not something they should be charged or going to jail for, and there’s other people willing to hire them … why the hell would they stay?”
The crime numbers may reflect the smaller police force size. For example, there were over 800 reported assaults in DeKalb County. The City of Atlanta recorded about half that many.
Police Officers as Witnesses
2020 George Floyd protests led to unprecedented police downsizing, both voluntary and involuntary. Governments downsized police forces and police officers left. In fact, in Minneapolis, the downsizing got so bad that the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered the city to hire more officers, or else.
Poor public perception affects police officer credibility, which is close to an all-time low. Twenty years ago, police officers got special treatment, like free pancakes at IHOP. Those days are long gone. Now, police officers pay for their own pancakes at IHOP. Police officers no longer get special treatment in public, and they no longer get special treatment in court.
Once again, twenty years ago, most jurors always believed the officer’s version of events, even if the officer’s story was a little shaky. Today, jurors are much more skeptical. That’s especially true if there were any irregularities, like a body camera that mysteriously wasn’t working properly.
Still, when people put on uniforms and testify in court, they cast a giant shadow. Only an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney knows how to properly cross-examine officers and tap into the jury’s unease.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Thin police officer ranks also affect responses to emergency calls. Less experienced officers mean less reliable court testimony. Officers without much field experience often don’t know how to respond to new situations.
Police officer experience and staffing also affects thing behind the scenes. Physical evidence chain of custody issues are very common in such environments. A gap in the chain of custody usually doesn’t render physical evidence, like drugs, inadmissible. However, a gap, even a small gap, could prompt some jurors to discount such evidence.
Police Officer Turnover
Police officer turnover has always been high. In many departments, the turnover rate has doubled since 2020. Additionally, fewer people want to be police officers, so in many cases, when an officer leaves the force, there’s no replacement available.
As police officer turnover increases, Marietta criminal defense attorneys delay more cases as much as possible. If the arresting officer leaves the force, the state’s primary witness, and often the state’s only witness, leaves as well. Another officer cannot step in to provide testimony. Only the arresting officer will do.
Delay is always frustrating for everyone. But delaying a case could mean a better resolution. In many cases, delay could mean a complete dismissal of charges. If the state doesn’t have a witness, the state doesn’t have a case, as a matter of law.
On a related note, in understaffed environments, officers often transition from patrol duty to other responsibilities. Assume Deputy Smith arrested a defendant in unincorporated DeKalb County north of Brookhaven. AT the time of trial, Deputy Smith had transferred to the night shift in Collinsville, at the opposite end of the county.
Collinsville to Decatur is a long drive, especially if Deputy Smith just finished working the night shift. The sheriff might not approve overtime, which means Deputy Smith won’t appear in court. Even if Deputy Smith does appear, he’ll be so fatigued he may be an ineffective witness.
Overtime approval and distance issues matter even more if the criminal case involved a pretrial hearing or hearings. Many DUI cases involve at least two such hearings, an evidence suppression hearing and an ALR drivers’ license suspension hearing. Often, departments don’t approve overtime for multiple court appearances in the same matter. Additionally, the more miles Deputy Smith must log, the more his mood deflates.
A smart Marietta criminal defense attorney knows how to work the system in these situations. In some courts, even after an officer arrives and the state announces ready, a defense attorney can announce not ready, and the court will reset the hearing.
Plea Bargaining Strategies
Police officer trust and availability issues affect plea bargaining strategies. Twenty years ago, an officer’s service record was almost meaningless, unless the officer had serious misconduct charges in his/her background. Today, even a relatively minor infraction, like being overly aggressive during a traffic stop, could greatly affect a case.
Availability is often an issue as well. Twenty years ago, when officers left the force, they often didn’t move far away. So, prosecutors could still subpoena them if necessary. Today, officers that leave the force are often looking for fresh starts. These quests usually mean out of state moves. Almost no former officers appear voluntarily in such situations. If a Marietta criminal defense attorney knows about these issue sin advance, the attorney’s bargaining position improves considerably.
These background checks shouldn’t be limited to the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office or the officer’s other current posting. We all have skeletons in our closet. Twenty years ago, as fare as many jurors were concerned, attorneys who brought up past misconduct allegations were trying to smear the officer’s good name. Today, again as far as many jurors are concerned, such questions are simply due diligence.
Law enforcement is much different today than it was before 2020. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. We routinely handle matters in Cobb County and nearby jurisdictions.