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Police ACE unit to focus on problem areas

Tough economic times call for authorities to fight property crime, drug enforcement

POSTED: November 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

Gainesville Police Chief Frank Hooper, left, and Capt. Paul Sherman show the stretch of Interstate 985 on which the Gainesville Police Department hopes to begin drug interdiction efforts with itsnew Aggressive Crime Enforcement unit.

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Gainesville police looking for worsening crime trends in a ragged economy have an ACE in the hole.

Starting next month, a pair of hand-picked officers will be assigned to the Gainesville Police Department’s new Aggressive Criminal Enforcement unit. Officers Justin Martin and Josh Shifflett will spend their time on the job focusing on problematic areas where property crime, like burglaries or auto break-ins, has increased. They’ll also spend some time on a portion of Interstate 985 looking for drug traffickers.

The two-man unit is similar to specialized operations in other law enforcement agencies, including the Hall County sheriff’s crime suppression unit. The idea is to have officers spend more time in problem areas without having to work a set schedule consumed by normal patrols and calls for service.

The ACE unit will be driven by crime analysis and won’t always work regular hours.

"Their schedules will be dictated by the criminal activity that’s taking place," Gainesville Police Capt. Paul Sherman said.

Police Chief Frank Hooper said he requested two new officers for the unit in the fiscal 2009 budget, but with tight financial times facing the city, the money was cut out. The chief decided to form the unit out of his existing pool of 103 sworn officers.

"We felt like the program had enough importance that we made sacrifices in other places to go ahead and implement this," Hooper said.

The chief said police are bracing for a spike in crime and already have seen some increases in residential burglaries this year.

Typically with the downturn in the economy, criminal activity picks up, Hooper said.

While regular uniform patrol officers have rotating schedules, "these officers will target specific crimes, and they’ll stay on them until they come to some sort of successful resolution," Hooper said. "They have some flexibility."

Much of the new unit’s work will focus on quality of life issues, and as such, will work closely with the department’s crime prevention unit and neighborhood watch programs, Hooper said.

In preparation for the new unit, Gainesville Police officials asked the city to annex the right of way on a 2.8-mile portion of I-985 that goes through Chicopee Woods and a half-mile stretch of McEver Road between Dawsonville Highway and Browns Bridge Road.

Currently Hall sheriff’s officials and the Georgia State Patrol have jurisdiction over those stretches of road, but not Gainesville police, which often can respond quicker to incidents there because of their proximity, Sherman said.

Provided the city council approves the annexation next month, Gainesville’s ACE officers will begin drug interdiction efforts along I-985, which authorities believe could be part of another southeastern corridor for cocaine trafficking.

Officials say the Atlanta region has become a hub for Mexican cocaine trafficking, and several large-scale drug seizures were made in Hall County in recent years, though none recently.

"According to the federal authorities, this is a pipeline," Hooper said. "And it just makes logical sense, as other jurisdictions put the heat on I-85, that 985 would become a natural corridor."

The ACE officers will be trained in what to look for, how to find secret compartments in vehicles, and would have police dogs available when needed, Sherman said.

"We would hope more than anything they would be a deterrent," Hooper said.

Drug interdiction will be just one role of the ACE unit, which will concentrate most of its efforts on attacking crime trends that are identified through data analysis. Hooper said police already have some problematic places in mind, which he declined to name.

The ACE unit rolls out the second week in November.

"I think it’s going to have a positive impact," Hooper said.



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