Originally created 04/22/01

Augusta gang unit sees delay



It's time Augusta had police working full time to fight gang crime but the Richmond County Sheriff's Office is too financially strapped to pay for it, according to Sheriff Ronnie Strength.

The department has three deputies - two in criminal investigations, one on road patrol - who spend their down time gathering information about the criminal underground. The three are probably the experts on gang patterns in Richmond County, but their work is a far cry from what police in other major Georgia cities with similar problems are doing.

Augusta is the only city its size in the state without a specialized gang unit or gang task force. Reacting to rising levels of violence, Atlanta, Savannah, Macon and Columbus police departments all have formed gang squads during the past 11 years.

Gwinnett County Police Department also has a gang unit. Gainesville and Hall County have a joint task force in cooperation with the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Talk of forming a full-fledged Richmond County gang unit arose last year, the sheriff said. Then came talk of budget problems, which forced the department to cut spending by $1.2 million on orders from the Augusta Commission. Thirty-one positions were eliminated from the sheriff's office.

Meanwhile, signs of gang activity are plentiful. Street graffiti is showing up more and more on downtown buildings, on support pillars below highway bridges, on car washes, even at a neighborhood swimming pool.

Last fall, the city had its first official gang-related homicides, when two people were shot to death after Thanksgiving at Westwood Village Apartments. A 1999 U.S. Department of Justice survey showed an 8 percent increase in nationwide gang membership from 1998. Local investigators fear that the numbers might be rising in Augusta.

"We would definitely like to grow with them, to keep a cap on it," Sheriff Strength said. "That would have been an area we would have looked at, possibly creating a two-man gang squad. We don't have that luxury right now."

Investigator Paul Godden, who along with Investigator Billy Kitchens and Deputy Scott White, are the the sheriff's office's "gang guys," said he would be eager to be part of such a squad, if it were possible. He spends about 15 percent of his time working gangs, plus time spent off the clock doing research and organizing records, which are kept in the trunk of his car, in his home and in what space he can afford in his desk drawers.

"It seems like we're losing a generation to violence and drugs, and a lot of that has to do with gangs," Investigator Godden said. "I'm not saying if you shut the gangs down you're going to shut down the violence and drugs, but you're going to take a bite out of it."

When something relevant pops up - such as a fresh spray painting or an interesting tip - it might take awhile before one of the three gang trackers can get around to it. They usually have to wrap up something from their regular workload first, Investigator Godden said.

Most Georgia police agencies faced with the issue operate that way, designating one or more officers to follow gangs. Tift County sheriff's Sgt. Joey Woods, president of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, said counties and cities in rural areas, including his own, don't have the tax base to fund full-time gang investigators.

Another obstacle can be the unwillingness of town leaders to admit they have a gang problem, he said. This probably fostered gang infiltration of the state during the 1990s, he said. Gang members in large cities such as Chicago saw the South as the "wild, wild West," where they could deal drugs and form new chapters with less police interference.

To fight the spread of gangs, it takes more than reactive enforcement. There must also be active prevention efforts, Sgt. Woods said.

The only such effort in the Augusta area is a Gang Resistance Education and Training program for Columbia County middle school pupils.

The Rev. Larry Fryer, director of New Hope Community Center on Conklin Avenue, has tried to start an anti-gang program for inner city youths for some time.

Plans to start one by March fell through after a volunteer bowed out, so now the Rev. Fryer said he will appeal to local ministers to head a new project, something he hopes will be off the ground by September.

"It ain't going to be nothing easy," he said.

On patrol

What police departments in major Georgia cities are doing about gangs.

ATLANTA: Atlanta Police Department

What they have: Atlanta Police Gang Task Force

Manpower: One lieutenant, two sergeants, seven investigators

Full-time or part-time?: Assigned exclusively to gang-related investigations and enforcement details, in addition to gang prevention

Estimated number of gangs: Refused

Estimated number of gang members: Refused

AUGUSTA: Richmond County Sheriff's Office

What they have: Deputies assigned to monitor gang activity

Manpower: Two investigators, one road deputy

Full-time or part-time?: Gang tracking is done on their spare time in addition to regular duties of criminal investigations or road patrol

Estimated number of gangs: 40 to 60

Estimated number of gang members: 500 to 1,000

SAVANNAH: Savannah Police Department

What they have: Savannah Police Department Gang Unit

Manpower: Four officers

Full-time or part-time?: Assigned to gangs, but will assist other divisions when needed

Estimated number of gangs: Four major groups, with several subsets

Estimated number of gang members: 400 to 500

MACON: Macon Police Department

What they have: Metropolitan Enforcement Unit

Manpower: 15 officers

Full-time or part-time?: Dedicated to gang and drug activity

Estimated number of gangs: Six to 10

Estimated number of gang members: 2,000 to 4,000

COLUMBUS: Columbus Police Department

What they have: Columbus Police Department Gang Unit

Manpower: One sergeant, three detectives, two patrolmen

Full-time or part-time?: Assigned to gangs, but will assist other divisions when needed

Estimated number of gangs: 20

Estimated number of gang members: 600 plus

Source: Questionnaires returned by individual departments

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225.