Originally created 08/08/99

Deputies seek out trouble



Around midnight, small children walk barefoot around the apartment complexes, some carrying their siblings who are still in diapers.

Crack addicts stroll down the streets, admittedly high.

Youths gather in areas that the police call "hot spots" -- the scenes of numerous drug busts.

These are the streets patrolled by the housing authority police task force, a specialized operation within the Richmond County Sheriff's Department. The 15 deputies are assigned to 13 Augusta Housing Authority communities known to the police and the residents as "the projects."

The task force has been in existence since 1995, when the Augusta Housing Authority contracted with the Richmond County Sheriff's Department to add the extra police presence. The officers' paychecks are paid by the housing authority.

"We need to get rid of the problems," said Sgt. Randy Prickett, a supervisor with the task force. "It's not fair to those living down there who don't want this mess."

The 13 neighborhoods -- Powell Apartments, Olmstead Homes, Peabody Apartments, Allen Homes, Gilbert Manor, Ervin Towers, M.M. Scott Apartments, Oak Pointe Apartments, Underwood Homes, Cherry Tree Crossing, Jennings Homes, Dogwood Terrace and Overlook Apartments -- are known as high-crime areas.

For Deputy Danny Whitehead -- who volunteered for the housing beat -- fights, stabbings, gunshots, drunken drivers and drug busts are just a typical day on the job. He tells of chases on foot through the complexes where invisible clotheslines reach from the dark, effectively ending the pursuit.

"You've always got to be scared, because it keeps you on your toes," Deputy Whitehead said. "Fear is a good thing, but you can't let it stop you."

Deputy Whitehead knows many of the residents by name, because he's worked the beat for more than 2 1/2 years.

"During the daytime, you have time to talk to the kids, but at night, there's the action -- taking drugs off the street, a lot of stuff you can stop," he said.

In the first six months of 1999, the officers arrested 482 people, on charges ranging from disorderly conduct and battery to drug possession.

The officers issued 82 felony warrants and 292 misdemeanor warrants. They made 52 DUI arrests. They confiscated 98.6 grams of cocaine and 589.4 grams of marijuana. Twenty-one people were arrested on family violence charges and 111 arrested in disorderly conduct cases. Eight stolen vehicles were recovered.

The problems usually aren't created by the residents, but by those who come to visit, Deputy Whitehead said. The officers carry a list of 172 names -- people barred from the housing projects because they have been arrested for various crimes. Most have never lived there.

"There's a lot of good people that live out here," Deputy Whitehead said. "You just have the bad ones that give them a bad name."

The housing deputies are an aggressive unit. Rather than wait for the dispatch calls, they actively seek out trouble in the neighborhoods.

"We ride bumper to bumper, always. We hit one project area for 20 to 30 minutes. If nothing's going on, at least we'll be seen," Deputy Whitehead said. "You never know what you're going to run into, when someone's going to be mad or who's going to be drunk. The only thing predictable is the drugs.

"Most of the time, they'll tell you the truth about what they're doing," he said. "But I've heard plenty of stories."

As he spoke, Deputy Whitehead pulled up to a woman strolling down the street, whom he identified as a frequent drug user. He asked if she was carrying any crack.

"No, I already smoked it," she replied. "In the projects?" Deputy Whitehead asked. Yes, she answered, at a friend's house.

"Where's the pipe?" the officer asked. She casually pulled out a metal pipe, no longer than her finger.

"You're always taking my stuff," she complained.

To help the fight against drugs, the housing authority recently purchased bikes for the deputies to use during their patrol. "They can slip up on these guys without really being noticed. That's a good way to make a drug bust," Sgt. Prickett said.

Throughout the night, the deputies are constantly monitoring "hot spots" for any suspicious drug activity. One of the largest problems is nonresidents driving through the complexes trying to buy drugs. Many are from out-of-state.

"People that live here know it's a drug area. They know if they're supposed to be out here or not," Deputy Whitehead said.

"I don't think we profile, but they'll give themselves away. You get a feeling for what's right and what's wrong. Police work is a lot of common sense," Deputy Whitehead said.

The front porch of a house on Picquet Lane is one of the known "hot spots," where people will gather to smoke drugs. During one police drive-by, several people who were on the porch ran.

The deputies gave chase and the men were caught. During routine background checks, one man had an outstanding warrant and was arrested. The area around the porch was searched, and a plastic bag full of marijuana found.

"Can't nobody sell it, can't nobody smoke it," said Deputy Roger Rice, another housing officer, who had been called to the scene.

"That's where we get a lot of our stuff -- people hanging out where they're not supposed to be," Deputy Whitehead said.

Upholding the Augusta curfew law, which requires minors to be off the streets from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. on weekdays and midnight to 5 a.m. on weekends if they are unsupervised, is another feature of the deputies' job. Fifty-one percent of the housing residents are children. During the day, they can be found tossing a football or playing chase. After 11 p.m., many of them still can be found outdoors, without parents.

"Ma'am, you've been warned before," Deputy Whitehead yelled at one recalcitrant mother, whose children were running around the Cherry Tree apartments about 11:30 p.m. "Ain't no sense in those kids being out this late."

The woman was cited.

As the deputies patrol the complexes, the children will stare at the police cars, sometimes with awe, sometimes with derision. The officers frequently stop to talk, or to ask people why they're sitting on a street corner after dark.

Many of the children are used to hearing the officers holler at them to get inside their homes after curfew.

"They work good with the kids," said Angela Patterson, 26, who lives at Olmstead Park with her two children. "They'll keep them in at night and say `hi' to the kids. We need them, because of the drugs, violence and crime. You can see people out here shooting at each other."

But not all of the residents appreciate the officers' veracity.

"They're needed because of all the crime that goes on, all the fights," said Beverly Brooks, 23, who lives in Olmstead Homes with her toddler, said but she said she doesn't see where their presence is making a difference.

Her male friend, who refused to give his name, said the deputies created nothing but trouble.

" Most of them come out here to harass people," he said. "They don't come out when they're needed. They come when they're not needed."

"Some of them are nice," said Rashawn Brown, 10, who also lives in Olmstead Homes with his mother. "But one of them bum-rushed my friend the other night -- tackled him to the ground."

Rashawn's friend was involved in a suspected fight, and ran from the police.

Because the officers patrol seven nights a week for 12 hours each night, they are a familiar sight to the housing residents, many who know the officers' exact schedules.

"The police come kind of regular, checking up on people," said Rosie Millbrook, 51, a resident of Olmstead Homes. "I know a lot of them by name. They do their best to keep it down."

She said the police are necessary because of the frequent fights in her neighborhood. "You have to stay inside and lock your doors. If you don't, people will jump on you."

The crime in the neighborhoods is often explained by the surroundings. Harden Oldfield, the director of resident services for the Housing Authority, said the low-income neighborhoods on all sides of the housing complexes generate most of the problems. So the officers have the right to patrol in those areas, as well.

"We spend over $1 million in the community policing and resident services. We're making that investment to make a change," Mr. Oldfield said.

Jessica Rinck can be reached at (706) 823-3225 or jessica.rinck@augustachronicle.com