Agents with the Columbus-Lowndes County joint narcotics task force seized 20 pounds of marijuana earlier this month at a 10th Avenue South residence as part of an eight-month narcotics investigation in Columbus. The task force is a partnership between Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office and Columbus Police Department. Sheriff Eddie Hawkins and CPD Chief Fred Shelton said they hope the force will be at full strength by 2021, with four sheriff’s deputies and four police officers all under the command of LCSO Capt. Brian Turner. Photo by: Courtesy photo
October 24, 2020 7:18:33 PM
On Oct. 2, agents with the Columbus-Lowndes joint narcotics task force executed a search warrant on a 10th Avenue South residence and recovered approximately 20 pounds -- or $46,000 worth -- of marijuana alone.
It was the culmination of eight months' worth of investigation and one of the more memorable recent seizures by the task force, a partnership between Lowndes County Sheriff's Office and Columbus Police Department that started in 2007, Sheriff Eddie Hawkins said.
The partnership in recent years has led to increased cooperation between the two departments, and Hawkins said the team has been seizing increasing numbers of narcotics over the last two months as the members of the task force -- all of them either new hires or transfers since Hawkins became sheriff earlier this year -- have gained more investigative and narcotics experience.
The idea behind the task force was to create a team of officers from both LCSO and CPD to focus on county-wide drug issues and narcotics investigations without having to worry about jurisdictional issues between the two agencies.
"The same consumers the sheriff's department was dealing with (were) the same consumers we were dealing with in the city as well, so it made sense for us to come together and work together on these cases," CPD Chief Fred Shelton said.
"Drug dealers don't know boundaries, so they'll sell drugs in the city but live in the county or vice versa," he said. "Having county-wide jurisdiction gives them the opportunity to work investigations that bleed over from city to county and so forth."
The status of the task force has fluctuated with leadership of the two agencies -- it was temporarily disbanded in 2012 over a member-appointment dispute between then-Sheriff Mike Arledge and CPD Chief Selvain McQueen only to be reinstated in 2017 under CPD Chief Oscar Lewis with LCSO Capt. Archie Williams as commander -- and Hawkins and Shelton both said they wanted to revisit the agreement this year, since neither had been in charge of their respective departments when the task force was reinstated in 2017.
"I was new coming in, he was new coming in and (task force commander LCSO Capt.) Brian (Turner) was new coming in," Shelton said. "Let's all get together, see what we had and see how we could make it better, and that's what we did."
The city council unanimously approved the agreement at its meeting Tuesday, and Hawkins said county supervisors are set to take up the matter at their Nov. 2 meeting.
Despite the new agreement between Hawkins and Shelton, not much changed regarding the setup of the task force, which will be run by Hawkins with Turner, a veteran of Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, as the team's commander. Under Turner will be four LCSO deputies employed by the county and four CPD officers employed by the city. Shelton said Turner will appoint officers to the task force.
Though Hawkins will deputize the agents and they will all answer to Hawkins and Turner, the officers will be paid by their respective departments. If any CPD officers require disciplinary action, it will be Shelton and the city council who choose the penalty, though Hawkins may give a recommendation.
Not including Turner, the task force currently has six members, only two of whom are from CPD due to the department's low staffing numbers. Shelton said eight officers are currently training at the police academy in Pearl and that once they graduate and can join CPD full time, Turner will appoint the remaining two task force members. Shelton and Hawkins both said they hope to have the task force at full staff by the end of the year.
"These guys have been interviewed and hand-picked, and they are so motivated," Turner said. "And that makes my job so much easier."
'Hand in hand with other crimes'
Since Turner was named commander of the task force on Feb. 10, the task force has investigated 203 active cases and made 178 drug and vice arrests, which include "anything from gambling to prostitution," Turner said.
The task force has also seized two pounds of methamphetamine, six ounces of cocaine, eight dosage units of fentanyl, 18 grams of heroin, 28 pounds of marijuana and more than 3,000 dosage units of ecstasy, though the last of those is more like methamphetamine in pill form than traditional ecstasy, Turner said.
"As far as previous years, we are doubling numbers in arrests," he said. "Seizures have definitely (gone) up, marijuana has (gone) up, methamphetamine and especially ecstasy. And also the heroin. So we are being more aggressive on the streets."
Hawkins, Shelton and Turner said they have several goals for the task force, from working with state and federal agencies on more complex narcotics cases to, in Turner's case, expanding community education and awareness about local drug issues to prevent addiction from occurring in the first place.
Shelton said one of his goals is to end the "open-air" drug market in the city, meaning he wants officers to crack down on drug dealers who sell products on street corners or other public places.
"I have noticed that since the drug task force is out there, we're getting a reduced number of calls about open-air drug activity, which means that since there's more of a presence, it's driving the drug deals off the streets and off the corners to a certain extent," Shelton said.
Hawkins said he believes the task force will go beyond narcotics and help solve violent and property crimes, especially within the city limits.
"If you look at what's happening in the city, we have a lot of violent crimes that are taking place and of course a lot of that is associated with drug use and drug dealing going on in the city," Hawkins said. "If we hope to target some of these individuals that are involved in some of this drug dealing, then it will curb some of the violent crime and some of the shootings that we see going on here in the city. We hope to target some of these hot areas and try to suppress some of that.
"Drugs go hand in hand with other crimes, because people that are committing these other crimes -- stealing, breaking in places, property thefts -- all this is supporting their habits, so we can work together with the investigators to solve the drug problems that we have in the county," he added.
While the task force's focus will be narcotics, the agreement specifies members can investigate other crimes as well. Hawkins said they can rely on confidential informants to provide information to investigators on crimes such as murder or burglary that, at first glance, don't appear to be related to drugs.
He said his department has already learned that many cases can be solved if members of various divisions, from patrol to criminal investigation to narcotics, make a point to communicate with each other. He said the same premise will work in a partnership between LCSO and CPD.
"We've been able to solve a lot of crime by just simply sitting down at the table and communicating," he said. "We do that with the city and the county and sharing this information, it can go a long way in enforcing the drug laws and solving some of the problems that we're seeing on the streets."
"I think it's going to be a great partnership. I think it's going to work," he said. "I think the citizens of Lowndes County and the citizens of Columbus are going to be satisfied with the way we're dealing with the drug problem in Columbus."
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