There have been 11 homicides in Decatur and its police jurisdiction so far in 2021, two more than all of 2020 and five more than 2019, and the police chief said factors contributing to the increase likely include COVID-19, political upheaval and overall frustration.
“Violent crimes are up everywhere in the nation,” Decatur police Chief Nate Allen said. “Why? That’s what we all want to know. It’s a question and problem facing police chiefs all across the country."
The United States had 25% more homicides in 2020 than in 2019 according to preliminary FBI data, the largest one-year increase since tracking began in 1960.
"The pandemic is one factor. It has people on edge," Allen said. "People are frustrated with our politics in this nation. (The Capitol riot of) Jan. 6 certainly has contributed to it. North Alabama is covered up with (frustration).”
He called the 11 homicides so far in 2021 “an anomaly.”
“(The homicide) numbers come and go,” he said. “One homicide is too many. Hopefully, we won’t have another one.”
Through the first six months of this year, by comparison, Huntsville had 15 homicides, according to the Huntsville Police Department. In 2020, Huntsville recorded 14 homicides and 19 in 2019. Huntsville's population is almost four times that of Decatur.
Allen said the homicides are across all sections of Decatur.
“Maybe 20 or 30 years ago it might have been mainly concentrated in a portion of town, but now it appears to be in all areas,” Allen said.
The changing landscape in law enforcement and a shortage of officers remain constant issues within his department.
“Today, it’s a new type of law enforcement,” he said. “Our manpower is down. In these times, it’s difficult to recruit and retain officers. Money is not always the answer for getting new officers.”
He said his department is about 10 officers short. “Our average is usually about seven (short) but we are seeing a decrease on the force,” the chief said.
In the city’s proposed budget for fiscal 2022, starting officer’s pay will be $42,186, up from $37,286. The department’s proposal asked for a starting pay of $44,000.
The murder conviction of former Huntsville officer William Darby in May is discouraging to everyone in law enforcement, Allen said. Darby was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in the shooting death of Jeffery Parker, who was threatening to kill himself at the scene in April 2018.
“It affected every officer in north Alabama,” Allen said.
Two of Decatur's 11 homicides were this month.
One occurred Aug. 19 at a gas station in Northwest Decatur. Ricardo S. Bass, 40, of Huntsville is a suspect in the shooting death of Mark Allen Nicholson, 54, of Hartselle. Bass has not been captured, and U.S. Marshals have offered a $5,000 award for information leading to his arrest. About 30 minutes before the Decatur shooting, authorities believe Bass gunned down a man in Huntsville. Both police departments have called the killings “random.”
One day before Nicholson's death, Avery Robertson was shot to death at a Decatur apartment complex. Police charged Darrell Da’Juan Clemons, 20, of Decatur, with murder. Clemons was released after posting a $150,000 bond.
In Morgan County, the Sheriff’s Office has recorded two homicides outside municipalities and their police jurisdictions in 2021. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office had 10, including the nation’s largest mass killing when seven people died in a late-night shooting at what investigators said was a drug house along Talucah Road in Valhermoso Springs.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Mike Swafford said he expects the department to ask the County Commission for more deputies in fiscal 2022.
In 2019, the sheriff’s department reported zero homicides, with three in 2018.
Morgan County Coroner Jeff Chunn said the majority of homicides in the county involved handguns, especially 9mm handguns. “That seems to be a popular caliber," he said. "Most (homicides) are random acts of violence.”
Last week, Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson said the homicide rate fluctuates annually.
“These things ebb and flow year to year,” he said. “There’s no one person, no one agency at fault. Unfortunately, these are the times we live in. Next year, we might have fewer of them. I pray that is the case.”
Allen said the bottom line to being an effective police department is trust.
“The community and law enforcement have to have a common goal,” he said. “In Decatur, we as law enforcement professionals have to come together with the community. If we don’t have the trust of the people of the community, we can’t serve and protect the community. We’ve been golden here. We have trust from most of the public.”