After listening to Damian Gatlin this week at the McComb Rotary Club, I came away with the opinion that McComb has itself a pretty good police chief.
It sounds like Gatlin has the law enforcement training and the desire to be a strong leader, along with a background that may help him relate to young kids and keep some of them out of trouble.
To be successful, he and his officers have to make a dent in crime like the car burglaries that have flourished recently.
“House burglaries have dropped pretty significantly,” Gatlin said. “They’re going into parking lots and they’re checking car doors.”
Too many parked cars are left unlocked, and Gatlin said guns are one thing the burglars are looking for.
He also has to figure out how to get a few more people to consider police work as a career. To do that, he probably will have to convince city officials to raise police pay to compete with other agencies.
It’s a tall order, and Gatlin said public skepticism about police work is making it more difficult.
“Law enforcement as a whole is under attack,” he said. “Society doesn’t want order or discipline. They just want to run around.
“We try to do our job, but we’re durned if we do and durned if we don’t.”
Gatlin may not like that perception, but he also may understand it better than most. He grew up in the White Acres housing project, the son of a single mother, a kid with low self esteem.
“When I grew up, I saw the criminal element, I saw the crime,” he said. “I love the idea of protecting people.”
He noted that he’s one of many former White Acres residents who have become successful adults, and said he recently talked to seven young black men on the back porch of an apartment near his former home to tell them they have the same chance.
“I said, ‘You don’t have to accept what’s being fed to you,” he recalled. “You see the dope guy driving a nice car and wearing all the jewelry, but he’s always looking over his shoulder. He never sleeps well.”
Gatlin says he’s not a politician, and he spoke very candidly about some of the police department’s issues. But he will have to be a skillful lobbyist to solve what appears to be his biggest problem: The retention of officers.
He said the starting pay for a police officer is about $28,000 per year, and at least one good recruit told him that he could make more money doing something else — and without putting his life on the line.
Gatlin would like to raise police officers’ starting pay to $31,000 to $32,000 a year. He said he’s thought about eliminating a couple of jobs to provide money for raises, but doesn’t want to do that. I’m sure the public would agree that fewer officers is not an appropriate solution.
He said higher pay would keep McComb competitive with other agencies, but there’s one other issue: In some places, law officers get to drive their car home at the end of a shift.
That’s a tough one. There aren’t too many of us that get to use a company car to drive to and from work. I don’t fault any officer who gets that perk, but I’m not sure it’s realistic in municipal law enforcement. For starters, you’d need to have a lot more patrol cars.
Gatlin counters that take-home patrol cars would help the city retain officers. It would also decrease the wear and tear on the vehicles, since they would be on the road for significantly fewer hours each day.
A pay raise and vehicles are just the beginning of Gatlin’s wish list.
“My guys want body cameras,” he said. Today’s law enforcement cameras do a lot more than make video recordings. They can send out a “prone alert” for help when they sense that an officer has been knocked down.
They also can track where the officer goes while wearing the camera. Gatlin said that would help the department assess which areas of the city need a greater police presence.
He’d also like the city to invest in better weapons, including Tasers, which he said “get a bad name but save lives.”
You can’t argue with the chief’s list except to say that it’s a pretty long one. I hope he and the city board can make something happen.