Challenges posed for police as population swells

LAWRENCEVILLE -- In any orderly society, traditional wisdom goes that a burgeoning population must skip hand-in-hand with burgeoning police forces. Gwinnett is no different, as police officials know.

The Gwinnett County Police Department serves roughly 86 percent of the county's 810,000 residents, following a recent annexation by the city of Norcross. They're authorized to maintain a ratio of 1.06 officer per 1,000 residents, but they're not there yet.

As in 2005, Gwinnett police have a current ratio of .99 officers per 1,000, though the department has swelled in the last seven years from 489 sworn personnel to 708, including recruits in the ongoing police academy, said Gwinnett police Assistant Chief Butch Ayers.

To maintain the target level, a population of 1 million would require nearly 400 more officers.

The Atlanta Regional Commission forecasts Gwinnett to crest the 1-million-resident mark in 16 years, based on the agency's Plan2040 study.

By the time 2028 rolls around, the majority of police precincts and headquarters in Gwinnett will have been updated or constructed anew in this century, at least. No department should be in the cramped straits Lawrenceville police endured recently, before they upgraded from their former car dealership offices. Part of their new headquarters was built to be empty, with growth in mind.

Funding from a penny sales tax approved by voters in 1997, 2001 and 2004 was used to renovate or construct new facilities for the five Gwinnett police precincts -- Central, Northside, Southside, Eastside and Westside -- and a headquarters building in Lawrenceville.

Three municipal police departments have been completed, or have broken ground on, state-of-the art police facilities meant to streamline operations. All have the penny tax to thank, in addition to -- in the case of Lawrenceville police -- more seedy revenue sources.

Suwanee police are aiming for greater visibility to accommodate a growing population.

Last year, the city of Suwanee purchased about one acre of blighted property near the Interstate 85 interchange that houses a vacant BP gas station, car wash and Waffle House to build a 7,000-square-foot police substation and training center. The project is under way.

"The new substation will provide 24/7 police visibility in the (Suwanee) Gateway," Suwanee police Chief Mike Jones said last year. "This facility will tell our citizens and visitors that safety in our community is a priority."

Suwanee purchased the property for $750,000. The construction budget for the substation and training center is about $1.6 million, which will be paid primarily through SPLOST funds.

Last January, Snellville police cut the ribbon on a 30,000-square-foot new headquarters.

After several years of planning and $6.5 million in SPLOST funds, the department moved out of its cramped, former Gwinnett utilities facility on Springdale Road. The new building more than tripled its size and put the department back in the heart of Snellville on Wisteria Drive.

Included is an in-house forensic lab (a first for Snellville police), outdoor kennels for K-9 units and a sally port (a secured garage that allows police vehicles to pull inside the building before removing suspects).

When Lawrenceville police unveiled their new $7.7 million headquarters on Jackson Street near downtown in 2010, they pointed to a silver lining of the heavy drug cartel involvement that's accompanied Gwinnett's growth -- seized drug assets.

At DEA Atlanta's headquarters last year, the department of about 70 officers received more than $2 million in drug-forfeiture proceeds, the fruits of a two-year cartel investigation dubbed "Operation Four Horsemen."

Metro Atlanta has gained the unsavory reputation as a primary distribution point for massive shipments of drugs smuggled from Mexico that cartel operatives hope to springboard to large East Coast markets. A vast interstate network and geographic proximity have added to the region's allure.

In 2010, DEA officials disbursed more than $8 million to five Georgia agencies, with Lawrenceville police getting the lion's share. Lawrenceville Police Chief Randy Johnson said his department regularly receives checks -- some as small as a few hundred dollars -- for its involvement with the multi-agency investigations.

This story is part of the 2012 annual Progress edition, "Moving Gwinnett Toward One Million." To see the complete online edition, click HERE.