Renovations on a downtown building that will house the new GBI unit are progressing well, and officials hope to see the center open by mid-October.
The West Georgia Drug Task Force, which served Carroll, Heard and Meriwether counties, became the West Metro Regional Drug Enforcement Office on July 1 of this year. The drug office will now serve 22 counties, from Carroll County to Muscogee County going north/south, and from the Alabama line to Newton County going west/east. Instead of housing one GBI agent and a handful of local officers assigned to the task force, the new drug hub will be the headquarters for the GBI’s investigations of mid- and upper-level drug offenders in Northwest Georgia.
After the transition from task force to drug office occurred, several new GBI agents were stationed in Carrollton along with the seven local officers already on the task force and a GBI supervisor, said Chris Hosey.
The seven original officers assigned to the task force were from the police and sheriff’s departments in the jurisdictions the task force served. According to Chris Tolbert, GBI’s special agent in charge of the drug office, the Carrollton office will house between 20 and 30 drug investigators from select jurisdictions in the office’s coverage area, as well as provide headquarters for a state-wide drug task force made up of about 20 agents who do undercover street-level drug enforcement around Georgia.
Carroll County Sheriff Terry Langley said that in February, he was approached by Hosey and Tolbert about finding a location in Carroll County big enough to house the larger GBI operation. Langley, who serves as chairman of the task force control board (which will likely change its name to reflect the transition) took the idea to Carrollton Police Chief Joel Richards, another control board member.
“We thought it was a great idea from the beginning ...” Richards said. “If you had to weigh the pros and cons, I don’t see any cons to it.”
Langley said that a number of locations were considered, and eventually the West Center Street building that once housed Martin and Hightower Funeral Home was chosen. Though the building had remained vacant for around five years and needed considerable renovations, the 7,000-plus square-foot building was an appealing spot.
With Langley, Richards and Villa Rica Police Chief Michael Mansour on board, the city of Carrollton and Carroll County agreed to chip in $200,000 each toward the building’s purchase, and all three law enforcement offices chipped in $50,000 in seized drug money. Langley said that participating agencies in Meriwether County chipped in as well and that other groups may provide monetary assistance before the project is completed.
“It just shows what multiple jurisdictions can do when they get together for one simple purpose,” Langley said.
Renovation on the building started in May and has consisted of primarily inmate labor. Work details from the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office have been working seven days a week for the past several months stripping floors, knocking down walls and replacing the building’s old interior with plentiful office space to house the new operation. Richards, who has been at the site nearly every day since renovations began, said significant improvements have also been made to the outdoor landscaping.
“You can tell these inmates took pride in this building,” he said.
Tom Keever, fleet manager for the Carrollton Police, said that the work detail officers have been gracious in allowing inmates with special construction skills to join the renovation project whenever needed. Richards estimated that the use of inmate labor has already shaved more than $100,000 off the cost of the renovation, but work crews have taken a number of steps ensure the project was done as frugally as possible.
For example, Keever said inmates have constructed doors, door jambs and other items used in the building out of scrap parts and that several larger items from the building’s funeral home days have been recycled.
“We don’t throw anything away that’s three inches or longer in length,” he said.
In addition to providing increased drug enforcement in Carroll County, Tolbert said that having access to officers in 22 different counties will greatly help Carroll County law enforcement - and all of the drug officer members - to solve drug crimes that cross jurisdictional lines. In fact, Tolbert said the additional presence over the past few months has already raised the number of drug cases under investigation from 50 cases by fall of 2007 to 78 so far this year.
“It’s going to expand our ability to follow up on the drug-smuggling end of it,” Langley said. “If we have something we know was smuggled into our area, we’re going to have a 22-county area and maybe make additional arrests.”
Mansour said that along with the additional enforcement, having a multi-jurisdictional office may also strengthen the already close ties between local law enforcement agencies.
“I think it’ll definitely help us even further because now we are a part of this big project that is going to bring a lot to our area,” he said. “I think that us being willing to participate in that together and work together has shown that we work really well with other surrounding agencies.”
Tolbert said that perhaps the most unique aspect of the drug office is that it will be the first of its kind in Georgia - but hopefully not the last. Although the GBI has several drug task forces stationed around the state, Carroll County’s will be the first to include local law enforcement officers. Tolbert said one reason Carroll County was chosen as the test site for the experiment was the teamwork he saw between Langley, Richards and other members of the control board.
“You don’t see that throughout the state normally,” Tolbert said. “It’s really great cooperation that makes the units so successful.”
Tolbert said that within a few months, he hopes to have around 24 task force agents, both GBI and local, working out of the Carrollton office. He has even signed up an Atlanta police officer to work full time in Carrollton.
“Atlanta is putting someone on now, which is a huge thing, because that is the hugest city in the state wanting to be part of the task force,” he said.
Although the renovations to the building alone will probably cost around $200,000, the entire project is expected to be paid for out of seized drug funds from local law enforcement offices.
Langley said that the office’s opening next month will be celebrated with an open house ceremony and that he is looking forward to having another set of trained drug enforcement agents patrolling the streets of Carroll County.
“We expect big things, and we’re very excited about it,” Langley said. “We’re just amazed that it came together so quickly.”