Local police department takes unique approach to fighting crime

Local police department takes unique approach to fighting crime

Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Erica Byfield went behind the scenes of Atlanta Police’s repeat offender tracking unit to see how they’re getting results in local communities. 

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Erica Byfield went behind the scenes of Atlanta Police's repeat offender tracking unit to see how they're getting results in local communities.

It starts with long hours in local courtrooms.

"My investigators go to court every time this person is in court, so we follow these cases through the court system,” said Lieutenant Rodney Wood.

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Wood runs the eight-officer unit. Those officers are charged with investigating every felony arrest in Atlanta to see if the defendant is a repeat offender charged with a new crime.

During the unit’s first calendar year in operation, they tracked close to 300 criminals.

In Georgia, a defendant must be convicted of three felonies to be considered a repeat offender. A person with a 20-year arrest history would not legally be a repeat offender if they are not convicted of three or more felonies.

Woody said violent crimes, like murder, are not the only offenses putting an extra burden on police.

"We're talking about some crimes that sometimes seem to fall through the cracks,” Woody said. “Burglaries, or aggravated assaults, robberies, entering auto -- those types of crimes that don't get the attention that we think they need in the court system."

Atlanta police investigator Michael Smith traded working on the beat to sit in court to give those cases that extra attention. Normally, he’s in court multiple times a week.

“The citizens voiced their opinion that they're tired of the [court’s] revolving doors,” Smith said. “These are the same people coming out and offending in the neighborhood.”

When Channel 2 followed Smith to court, he was tracking Vincenzo Palazzola, a 55-year-old defendant with a 23-year arrest history.

Palazzola’s criminal history includes felony convictions for drug crimes, disorderly conduct, carrying a deadly weapon, aggravated assault, simple battery and false imprisonment.

"We're definitely filling in a gap that historically has been there with police work for quite some time," Atlanta police investigator Daniel Paul told Byfield.

Paul, who is also a member of the unit, said their investigations and detailed reports are compiled in a custom computer system that tracks offenders. Eventually, they share their findings with other members of law enforcement, like the district attorney’s office.

Ultimately, those investigators go to court. They track developments with offender’s cases, help prosecutors get evidence and witness statements, and are on standby to provide an impact statement and speak to the court about police’s history with a defendant.

“It's definitely apparent when we are in the courtroom,” Smith said. “It's almost like all eyes on us. Everybody knows what we're here for.”

After Smith spent more than five hours in court, Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua finally heard Palazzola's most recent charges. Police arrested him for allegedly putting lighter fluid on a woman and threatening to set her on fire.

According to his arrest records, that incident allegedly happened 11 days after he was released from jail on assault and battery charges.

Palazzola asked for a plea deal for the latest case. Judge LaGrua said she would not consider his plea because of his lengthy criminal history.

Paul, a 15-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department, told Byfield he is proud of his work with the repeat offender unit and sees the impact it’s having on the community.

"It’s so rewarding to actually know that they were sentenced properly and they didn't fall through the cracks," Paul said.