Gun violence 'priority' Dougherty County DA says

·3 min read

Jul. 10—ALBANY — In 1988 Dougherty County earned the dubious distinction as the "murder capital" of the nation, with nearly 30 homicides for the year.

An FBI report listed the murder rate at 24.5 persons per 100,000 in population, ahead of New York City's rate of 22.7 per 100,000. The federal agency counted 27 deaths in the city and two in unincorporated Dougherty County, with the Albany Police Department disputing that number, claiming there were only 24 deaths in the city.

Things have calmed down since then, but a spike in gun violence last year caught the attention of the community, with the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce and elected officials weighing in on the impact of violence on the community.

In 2020 there were 19 deaths from gun violence, Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler said. The number is running at a similar pace for this year, with nine gun deaths so far.

Seeing the trend, Dougherty County District Attorney Greg Edwards said his office is formulating a plan to help reduce the bloodshed.

"We are working on addressing the gun violence in Dougherty County," he said. "We are making direct efforts on the part of the DA's office and the judges. We are doing something."

With the COVID-19 pandemic closing courthouses for more than a year, prosecutors were unable to convene grand juries to issue indictments or hold jury trials.

In Dougherty County, just as criminal trials were set to get underway, flooding in the Dougherty County Judicial building caused by a faulty water hose on the third floor further delayed trial calendars.

"We are moving toward trials, and we are moving toward trials in the near future," Edwards said. "As part of that, we are working on gun murders. We are focusing on how we can both address gun violence and our cases that need to be tried."

The district attorney said he also will be announcing new initiatives.

Last year he attributed many of the shootings to a beef between two rival street gangs that stretches back for years. After a lull in gun violence early during the pandemic lockdown, there was a spike in shootings that followed in ensuing months.

During the lockdown, even though people were not out on the streets as frequently, the two gangs used social media to keep the feud going, Edwards said.

"It's a mountain," he said of the issue. "If we have to move it one shovelful at a time, we still have to move the mountain. We will be taking some definitive steps toward addressing our gun violence. This is our priority, and we are working to address this."

One suggestion offered by Dougherty County Commission Chairman Chris Cohilas is for agencies to work more closely together. There are a number of law enforcement agencies whose responsibilities include violence and the illicit drug trade, which can be a source of friction between rival gangs.

The individual agencies should be less protective of their turf and looking to claim credit and work collectively, said Cohlias, who worked as a prosecutor for seven years.

"I think we need an aggressive, hard-hitting approach," he said. "Somebody needs to write down on a sheet of paper who the most dangerous people are and round them up.

"They can set up special operations and get them off the streets. That's the kind of focus I'm looking for."

Cohilas said he is not criticizing local law enforcement, but that a coordinated effort is needed.

"I just want to see our law enforcement and DA — we have great leadership — but I want to see aggressive approaches being used by law enforcement (that are) proactive, not just reactive, getting out there and serving search warrants," he said. "We need to arrest the bad guys and get them off the streets."

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