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Law and order: Counties combine resources in fight against drug crimes

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

After a year of collaborating with the drug enforcement unit in the 15th Judicial Circuit, law enforcement agencies in Georgetown County have joined the unit with a $160,201 grant.

The move will help increase prosecution of drug traffickers, officials say.

The Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments in Georgetown and Andrews will join eight agencies in Horry County that staff the unit, which was started five years ago with a similar grant from the state Department of Public Safety.

It’s the first local drug unit in the state to cross county lines, according to 15th Circuit Solicitor Greg Hembree.

The one-year grant will fund a deputy commander for the county, provide equipment and pay for office space.

Since the unit was formed in Horry County, it has logged over 1,000 arrests, seized more than $1 million in cash and more than $16 million in drugs.

Six officers who handle drug cases in Georgetown County will join 17 from Horry County. State law enables them to have jurisdiction in both counties.

One reason the unit was started is that drug dealers “don’t have the jurisdictional constraints we do,” Hembree said.

The success of the unit in Horry County led the council there to include funding in its budget after the grant ran out. There were no questions raised, even in a tight budget year, said Paul Whitten, the director of public safety for Horry County. “It’s just a good investment,” he said.

The solicitor’s office, which applied for the grant, will seek to have it renewed next year.

Bill Knowles, a 32-year veteran of law enforcement who commands the unit, said he doesn’t think it will be hard to get additional grant funds. “We have been a model for the state,” he said.

Burke Fitzpatrick, who administers the state grant program, said requests this year totalled $43 million for $11 million in funds, which are passed on from the federal government.

The drug unit is governed by a board that represents each agency. They share seized funds according to each agency’s staff contribution.

“We’re governed like the Senate, but we divide the money like the House,” Hembree explained.

After the unit started in Horry County, an assistant solicitor pointed out to Hembree they were handling more trafficking cases than she handled in Greenville County. Hembree said that was the result of sharing information between the agencies.

The unit also has more time to develop cases, along with the equipment needed to catch dealers, Hembree said.

Common training improves the quality of cases that are presented to the solicitor’s office, he said.

The key step in forming the unit was the willingness of local police chiefs to give up authority for their staff. Knowles and his deputy in each county are paid through the solicitor’s office. The other members of the unit are paid by their agencies, but report to Knowles.

Georgetown County Sheriff Lane Cribb said joining the drug enforcement unit means there will be more manpower available.

He isn’t concerned about turning deputies over to the unit commander as long as they catch the dealers. “I don’t care who they’re going to get, just tell me who you’ve got,” Cribb said.

He said the first year of collaboration was good practice. But it will be more effective with full-fledged participation.

Between 35 and 40 percent of criminal cases are drug-related, Hembree said. But it is estimated that drugs are involved in 80 percent of crimes.

“This is a bad day for drug dealers,” Hembree said.

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