Drug task force fills void in cities

It's hardly a secret that drugs are a problem in Gwinnett County. The local jail's docket book fills up daily with words like "trafficking," "less than an ounce," "intent to distribute" and "possession of a controlled substance."

Methamphetamine, marijuana, pills, cocaine, even heroin; they're all common guests inside our borders.

The Gwinnett County Police Department does a fine job, and its jurisdiction covers about 87 percent of the county's 430 square miles, including unincorporated areas and a few cities without their own local forces. But, following the resolution of a long-standing dispute over the county's service delivery strategy -- a convoluted deal best explained in this case simply as disallowing GCPD from entering the limits of those cities that do have their own squads -- about 13 percent of the county was left uncovered by Gwinnett's best-outfitted authorities.

The cities (and police forces) of Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Norcross, Snellville and Suwanee were on their own, leading to the formation of the Gwinnett Metro Task Force.

Since its creation in August, the GMTF has tackled drugs and vice in five of those cities (Norcross opted out because it has a healthy crime suppression unit of its own). With seven full-time, undercover members and a helping hand from the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Office, the task force has made dozens of arrests and seized millions of dollars in drugs and cash.

"Basically, the city chiefs got together and said 'We need somebody to work narcotics and vice,'" said the squad's leader, who works undercover and asked not to be identified. "We started from scratch and emulated some of the bigger task forces in the state that have been around for a long time."

Through the first week of May, the GMTF had made approximately 86 drug-related arrests, seized or helped seize more than $5 million worth of drugs, and confiscated about $362,000 cash. Of the arrests, 31 have been on marijuana charges; 18 for cocaine; 12 for methamphetamine; 11 for pills; 10 for heroin; and one for possession of ecstasy.

Three large-scale trafficking arrests have been made.

Again, all of that is from inside the city limits of Duluth, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Snellville and Suwanee -- only about 51 square miles.

"We were generally structured and formed to be a street-level unit, and that's mainly what we focus on," the task force's commander said. "But if (a suspect) wants to give up info on who their supplier is, we certainly follow it up the chain."

All involved have sung the task force's praises.

Lilburn Police Chief Bruce Hedley said cooperation between the cities, sheriff's department and district attorney's office has been "outstanding."

"The GMTF has been truly instrumental into curbing the unlawful efforts of our local and metro narcotics distributors," he said, adding that he was "convinced the GMTF adds value to our already high level of service provided to our citizens."

Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead called the task force "very active and "extremely successful."

"The task force has worked cases in every jurisdiction and has developed significant intelligence which will prove valuable going forward," he said. "This relationship is valuable and has benefited all the communities and agencies represented."

Specifics about how GMTF operates are kept under wraps, but its actions are based heavily on intel gathered from a tip line and email (770-670-5180 and gmtaskforce@gmail.com). Essentially, the crew gathers and gets briefed at its undisclosed headquarters before departing for the day's work.

They usually work late nights and are always undercover. And they have plenty of work.

"The drug problem is real in the entire county," their commander said. "We do have a large demand. And somebody's gonna fill it."