December 4, 2012 10:46:58 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
The local drug task force known as the Columbus-Lowndes Metro Narcotics Unit has been disbanded. The decision to disband the unit was finalized last week after an exchange of letters between Columbus Police Department Chief Selvain McQueen and Lowndes County Sheriff Mike Arledge.
In a Nov. 20 letter to the sheriff, McQueen outlined his concerns with the interlocal agreement by which both the city and the county abide.
"It is my understanding that your office deems it necessary to dictate which officers the Police Department will and will not serve on the multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement task force," McQueen's letter began.
The Interlocal Cooperation Agreement specifies the CPD chief and Lowndes sheriff will assign personnel.
He continued by issuing an ultimatum to the sheriff.
"It seems to me we have two choices: (A) Terminate the Inter-local Agreement; or (B) Proceed forward with me as the Police Chief deciding which officers from my department are to be assigned."
Arledge responded to McQueen's letter by terminating the interlocal agreement in a letter dated Nov. 26.
"Please accept this letter as a notice that the Lowndes-County Sheriff's Department is terminating the Columbus-Lowndes Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Unit Inter-local Cooperation Agreement."
Arledge continued by assuring the chief that the sheriff's department will still be of assistance to the police department.
"Even though the inter-local agreement is terminated, we will continue to work with the Columbus Police Department and be of assistance any time we can," he wrote.
When reached for comment Monday, McQueen was mum on the issue.
"I have no comment," he said. "It is what it is."
Arledge confirmed the termination of the unit and added the separation has already taken place. The three agents from the city began moving out of the county's narcotics office Monday.
The unit's commander, Bobby Grimes, said disbanding the unit was unfortunate.
"Nobody is going to win out of it except the people we're trying to catch," he said. "I hate to see it happen."
Tension between the city and county reportedly began when the city wanted to add an agent to the task force.
As part of the interlocal agreement, the city and the county are each allotted three narcotics officers.
The unit has been a five-man team since Grimes took over in January after Arledge's election.
Sgt. John Duke and agent Don Richardson were the narcotics agents from the city and Sgt. Archie Williams and Sgt. David Criddle were the agents selected from the county. Grimes was the fifth member of the unit and also with the county.
Lewis appointment creates rift
In April, the city began plans to add a third man to the team.
Eric Lewis was brought before the city council by McQueen as a new hire. Lewis was a former officer at the CPD but left to become a special contract agent with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. Lewis was hired at MBN as part of a grant and when the grant ended, Lewis was not kept on with the agency. He returned to Columbus in hopes of joining the Metro Narcotics Unit.
Issues arose at a city council meeting when Chief McQueen was seeking approval to hire Lewis. Human resources director Pat Mitchell noted that Lewis had yet to fill out an application, questioning if he could even be hired at that moment.
McQueen assured Mitchell the application would be completed, and the hiring process began.
Lewis worked on patrol for several months before he and three other officers with the city appeared before members of the unit and city personnel for an interview for appointment to Metro Narcotics.
McQueen, assistant chief Joe Johnson, captain Fred Shelton, public information officer Glenda Buckhalter, Grimes and the four other Metro agents comprised the interview board.
After the interview, Grimes and his agents reportedly lent their support to Stephen Kemp over Lewis. Kemp, a veteran officer with the CPD, was also a member of the Drug Interdiction and Crime Enforcement team until it was disbanded earlier this year after McQueen cited a need for more officers on patrol.
However, Kemp's hiring as an agent with the unit was rejected by city administration. After it denied Kemp's hiring, CPD administration selected Lewis for the position.
According to Arledge and Grimes, every member of the joint narcotics unit must be contracted through MBN. Arledge said McQueen agreed to the MBN stipulation when the interlocal agreement was signed in June.
Sources with both the city and county said MBN denied to certify Lewis as being eligible for contract.
Delores Lewis, public relations director for MBN and no relation to Eric Lewis, could not speak on specific personnel matters but said before an agent is deputized as a special contract agent with the agency, they have to meet standard requirements.
"Anytime you have an officer on a task force that is to be deputized by MBN, he has to be approved," she said. "Among other things, they have to pass an extensive background check, a criminal records check, a credit check, a polygraph and a drug screening."
Lewis was rejected as a Metro Narcotics agent when it was learned he was not eligible for contract with MBN.
According to Grimes, MBN would not grant Lewis contract status. Grimes said he ascertained this after conversations with MBN Director Marshall Fisher and MBN Enforcement Commander Mike Perkins. According to Grimes, Perkins and Fisher said the agency would not grant Lewis contract status.
When McQueen learned of the county's refusal to accept Lewis, he and the unit reportedly decided not to bring on a third agent, leaving Metro Narcotics as a five-man team.
Then, with reportedly little warning to members of the county, McQueen unilaterally appointed Lewis to Metro and sent him to work with the unit. Since Lewis joined the unit, he has been restricted to only working cases in the city. Even though they are employed through the city, both Duke and Richardson could work in the county.
However, after Monday's official split, Lewis, Duke and Richardson will all be confined to work drug cases inside the city limits.
Since the city of Columbus is part of Lowndes County, Grimes, Williams and Criddle can continue to work in both the city and county.
Split caused by 'misunderstanding'
Arledge agreed with Grimes that the split was unfortunate but felt it was unavoidable given the "misunderstanding" of the interlocal agreement.
"We all met with the chief before we agreed to the interlocal agreement,'' Arledge said. "We all agreed on it and signed it. Since then, there was a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of how it was supposed to work."
Arledge said he felt he had no choice in terminating the agreement, which ultimately disbanded the unit.
"We had procedures in place," he said. "We would assign cases, personnel, etc., and there was just some misunderstanding or maybe not willing to go along with some of it.
"I won't point any fingers per se; we still have a good working relationship but that's the way it is at this time."
History of unit
The Columbus-Lowndes Metro Narcotics Unit began in 2007 when the city and the county decided to join forces to fight the local war on drugs.
By all accounts the city-county relationship has been a resounding success.
One of their most recent efforts, Operation Full Throttle resulted in the arrest of more than 60 people involved in two different drug rings in Lowndes County, with many of those arrested being prosecuted federally. Between the two drug rings, nearly 10 kilos of cocaine a month were being distributed in Columbus and the surrounding areas. Agents also seized approximately $180,000 in cash and 23 vehicles as part of Operation Full Throttle.
Grimes said the Metro Narcotics Unit was one of the most successful units he has seen in his extensive career.
"It's one of the most productive years I've seen in any local unit in the amount of seizures and local cases," he said.
Despite the split, Arledge said he is confident the county and the city can work together for the benefit of Lowndes County.
"It's going to be just as good," he said of the county's narcotics unit. "We'll work together; it just won't be on paper."
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Eric Lewis "failed to be deputized by MBN." The story has been corrected to state Lewis was "not eligible for contract" with MBN.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.