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Code enforcement, police officers work together to fight crime

LAWRENCEVILLE - Officials are pleased with the growth of Gwinnett's quality-of-life efforts from five police officers to a 38-person unit, but the struggle to clean up the county will continue for a long time.

"Quality of life is not just pulling up signs and mowing grass," Police Chief Charlie Walters said Tuesday during a briefing on the efforts. "Small problems lead to large problems. ... It's about looking for the root causes of crime in neighborhoods."

On Feb. 1, code enforcement officers were transferred from the Planning and Development Department to the Police Department to consolidate the effort, which began nearly two years ago.

Code enforcement and police officers have worked side-by-side on sweeps of Gwinnett's most blighted neighborhoods, but residents didn't have a central office to report problems. With two environmental officers fielding calls at Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful, there were times when several offices were working on the same cases.

County Administrator Jock Connell called the efforts "wasteful."

"We realized we were going to have to have a more efficient and streamlined approach," he said.

In addition to dealing with cases that arise from resident complaints, the unit will also look at crime statistics to determine which areas of the county to focus on.

"There's a direct correlation between areas of decline and the crime rate," said Maj. Dan Branch, the officer assigned to heading up the task force. He said problems with one house can eventual lead to the decline of an entire subdivision. "It's like a cancer. It's going to infect the other good homes in the neighborhood."

While the officers will enter communities looking for issues such as junk cars in yards, littering and graffiti, they will also have their eyes out for more serious issues. In fact, in the last month, police running license plates for cars in yards came up with three arrests for stealing cars.

"We cannot function and be successful without citizen involvement," Walters said, adding that officers are trying to reach out to non-English speakers, who often don't know the community standards and are fearful of police. "We've got to make sure the newly arrived people in this county get involved."

Officials are still working on setting up an office for the unit, but leaders have said they want to find a location in either the Gwinnett Village or Gwinnett Place community improvement districts, blighted areas where business owners have banded together to make improvements.

Walters said he expects the transition for the unit to be complete long before the April 30 deadline set by commissioners, although he said a complaint hotline and ability to take online complaints could take longer.

"It's a big day, but it's a step in the process. We're not there yet," Commissioner Mike Beaudreau said of the announcement Tuesday. "That's a huge increase (in resources), and that's what voters wanted us to do, to put law and order No. 1."