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Police, sheriff’s office discuss community concerns amid gun crime uptick
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From left, Lt. Tommy McElroy, Investigator Brad Raper and Chief Jay Parrish gather near the entrance of the Park Hill Drive CVS Pharmacy Feb. 7. Police were called to investigate the shooting death of Jack Hough. - photo by Nick Watson

Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish doesn’t like rattlesnakes.

He gives a wide berth to any place where the venomous reptiles may slither, and Parrish hopes the analogy holds true for the criminal element seeing the blue lights from police cars.

“I hope criminals feel the same way when our officers flood into that area, that they’re uncomfortable. Either we catch them, or they move on,” Parrish said.

This idea is part of the department’s recent decision to increase police activity in the Park Hill Drive area — following two shootings and an armed robbery — in an area near a number of apartment complexes.

“I’m not blaming anybody in those apartment complexes, but that just seems to be where a lot of our criminals are gathering. I don’t think they live there. I think they know somebody there, and it’s kind of a safe haven,” said Parrish, adding that the blitz of activity will include undercover units.

The new chief discussed his “trial by fire” right out of the gate after succeeding retired Chief Carol Martin, whose last day was Jan. 31.

In the first six weeks of this year, Gainesville and Hall County law enforcement were called on to solve three homicides as well as a slew of other gun-related crime.

“The pain has been palpable for those in mourning for individuals who lost their lives. Others anguish and pray for those struggling to recover from wounds they suffered in these incidents. The shootings have also resulted in understandable concerns and fears in the community.
No one should seek to minimize the impact these incidents have had, but it is also important that citizens are provided with accurate context and perspective,” Sheriff Gerald Couch said in a statement.

In 2017, there were 357.2 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 Georgians, which was lower than the federal rate of 394 incidents per 100,000 people.

While the Georgia crime rate has trended downward in the past decade, it did increase slightly in 2012, 2014 and 2016. There were nearly 3,000 fewer violent crimes between 2016 and 2017 in Georgia, according to the FBI statistics.

The FBI classified violent crime as homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

For the metropolitan area, Gainesville’s violent crime rate per 100,000 inhabitants is smaller than that of the average Georgian at 221.2 in 2017.
In 2017, Gainesville Police worked on 37 violent crimes involving firearms. That number dropped to 28 in 2018, and the department tallies four incidents this year.

Those incidents include:

  • The Jan. 19 fatal shooting on DeSota Street that killed Nathaniel Gray, 26. No suspects have been identified by police.

  • The Jan. 23 shooting at the Jesse Jewell Parkway Huddle House. Michael Benham, 60, of Lula, was critically injured and another woman was shot at, police said. Willie Joe Moran, 24, of Gainesville, was charged with attempted murder.

  • The Feb. 7 fatal shooting at the Park Hill Drive CVS Pharmacy that killed Jack Hough. DeMarvin Bennett, 24, of East Point, was charged with murder.

  • The Feb. 12 armed robbery at the Texaco on Park Hill Drive. Police described two suspects taking an undisclosed amount of money, though no one was identified.

The sheriff’s office also is investigating the Feb. 10 fatal shooting of Chester Morrison, 36, at the Gainesville Highway QuikTrip in Buford. James Blocksom, 23, of Canton, was charged with murder.

The first few hours are critical when trying to find a suspect, Parrish said.

Three members of Parrish’s investigative team slept in their office cubicles for a few hours’ rest before returning to investigating the Hough shooting at the CVS, which happened late on a Thursday. A suspect’s name was developed by Friday night. Two days later, the investigators were able to return home about an hour before the Feb. 10 press conference announcing an arrest.

“Our guys are worn out. They’ve had what I would say (are) three major gun crimes in the first six, seven weeks of 2019: two homicides and the gentleman at the Huddle House that is alive, thank God. But it was close,” Parrish said.

Technology has advanced to where police can better assess where to staff officers, but crimes of passion are wildly unpredictable, said University of North Georgia assistant professor Douglas Orr.
“When it comes to domestic violence and expressive crimes, it becomes very, very difficult to predict, and I don’t know currently of a model of other than some of the public health literature that tells us some of the key predictors of what to look for,” said Orr, who retired as a detective from the Spokane (Wash.) Police Department’s major crimes unit after a 30-year law enforcement career.

Orr said those predictors are anger and alcohol/substance abuse.

Predictive analysis has been successful in tracking traffic crimes, leading Gainesville Police to create heat maps highlighting times, dates and places to better staff officers.

“With these crimes, they’re so unrelated. You have three different offenders that had no nexus to one another. All three had very different motives. You can’t do any predictive analysis, and it is frustrating,” Parrish said.

Orr said smaller markets such as Gainesville are at a disadvantage for predicting crime because there will be fewer data points, and those incidents will be less frequent.

For the sheriff’s office, the number of aggravated assaults and murders involving firearms is actually down this year when comparing the first six weeks of 2019, 2018 and 2017.

“This year, the sheriff’s office has recorded five such cases, one being a murder. While there were no murders in the first few weeks of 2018, deputies responded to roughly 14 aggravated assaults involving firearms. The 2017 number was seven, again with no murders,” according to the sheriff’s office.

When looking further out to the decade, there have been fewer aggravated assaults involving firearms in recent history compared to the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

“From 2008 until 2018, the agency worked 405 such cases. During the previous decade, 1997 to 2007, deputies worked 534. The highest number during the two decades was 69 in the year 2000, compared to 57 in 2018, the highest figure in the latest decade. The lowest number occurred in the most recent decade with 23 cases in 2011,” according to the sheriff’s office.

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