DeKalb County plans to hire 480 police officers and 300 firefighters in the next three years — a pace designed to halt a hemorrhage of public safety workers and gradually increase the number of workers in uniform.
This county of 700,000 residents currently has only 915 police officers to fill 1,100 budgeted slots. There’s a similar deficit in DeKalb’s Fire Department, which has 600 firefighters for 789 positions.
That’s because over the past four years, 277 officers joined the police force while 400 left, and the Fire Department added 71 firefighters while seeing 236 depart.
“The reality is, we have to be more aggressive to slow our rate of attrition and make it clear we demand first responders on our streets,” interim CEO Lee May said in proposing his ambitious hiring plan. “We can’t afford not to do this.”
Cost will be an issue for the plan, May’s first since taking over the county’s top job this summer from suspended CEO Burrell Ellis.
So far, the only part of May’s proposal that is covered is the $980,000 price tag for a one-time 3 percent bonus he is proposing for 1,700 first responders now serving DeKalb. Money in savings would cover the bonus.
At least $15 million more in taxpayer dollars would be needed to do more hiring, gradually buy take-home cars for officers and reinstate pay raises. Early plans in the 2014 budget call for all other county departments to shave 5 percent from their spending to be funneled into public safety for the coming year.
After that, however, May said he will push for the county to free up cash by cutting other services or turning over some programs to the private sector or the county’s cities. He did not offer specifics.
“I hate to see other programs suffer,” Terry Jenkins, a disabled Navy veteran from Tucker, said about the plans. “You want to see more cops, but it depends on what suffers as a result.”
Many public safety workers, listening to May’s plan as part of a Sept. 11 memorial ceremony, also had questions.
While many of them gave polite applause to his announcements — and many more nodded at the prospect of more money — they, too, were waiting on details.
“It sounds positive at this point, but there will be challenges,” said Lt. Tom Reiner, who works out of the Central Precinct. “Hiring that many people will be a lot of work.”
More bodies, though, are just what residents and workers alike have increasingly demanded in recent years.
Violent crime, such as murder and robbery, has declined by about 2 percent since last year. But at the same time, statistics show that nonviolent crimes are up by the same amount.
Officers say those figures reflect shifts where they are rushing from priority call to priority call, too short-staffed to spend time in the community to spot potential problems or quickly handle more minor offenses.
And it’s those routine patrols that residents say they want, either from the county or from the two new cities that have sprung up in DeKalb since 2008.
“You want to see them on the road and in your neighborhood,” said Sean Patrick, a pastry chef from Clarkston who applauded the idea of more hiring. “It’s always nice to have more police officers around.”
Firefighters, too, have been scarce in recent years. The county expected to lose several dozen firefighters when it began privatizing its ambulance services about two years ago.
But the exodus was larger than expected, and the county went a full year without an academy to train and hire new workers. DeKalb has enough firefighters to maintain 22 fire stations, but only enough for three firefighters per engine. Its stated goal is four firefighters on every truck.
Fire Chief Eddie O’Brien said his department will immediately begin working to set up a new academy, calling the possibility of ramping up so quickly “a huge day” for DeKalb.
Fire Capt. Mandel Reese, a 14-year veteran of the department, was equally enthusiastic about the possibilities.
“We certainly could use the help,” Reese said. “It’s exciting and motivating for all of us.”