SPRINGFIELD — The Effingham County Sheriff's Office has a wide range of responsibilities. It responds to domestic calls and automobile accidents, handles the civil process, runs the jail and protects the courts and courthouse.
The sheriff’s office is different in other law enforcement agencies in the county in that it has statewide authority. It can go anywhere in the state and arrest someone.
Every Georgia county is required by the state constitution to have a sheriff. All the other law enforcement departments are optional.
In Georgia, there are only four constitutional offices — the clerk of the court, probate judge, tax collector and sheriff.
Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said staffing is a real problem as his office is currently short 28 people. That breaks down to 15 openings on the street and 13 at the jail. He said the situation makes it harder for deputies to do their jobs.
McDuffie said the manpower deficit puts more pressure on the existing staff. It makes it necessary for some deputies to pull overtime and that can lead to burnout.
McDuffie said COVID-19, which brought the court system to a halt, lessened as a concern recently but warned that it may reemerge.
“The courts are pretty much back in business but I’m afraid this new COVID rush has put some of that on hold,” he said. “They have been doing a great job about moving some of these cases through the court.”
The sheriff added that the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit recently added a fourth State Court Judge and that’s helping tremendously to ease the backlog.
“I still have people who have been in jail 500 or 600 days — some 1000!,” he said.
McDuffie said being able to handle some matters through ZOOM has helped tmove things along. He said defendants now can meet with their attorneys virtually through an in-jail private zoom space.
McDuffie said traffic incidents and domestic violence calls keep deputies busy. He said the county had only four traffic fatalities last year — the lowest since he began serving as sheriff — but there have already been seven this year.
McDuffie said, "We just try to get people to pay attention. Ninety percent of it is just patience and paying attention."
The sheriff also said that fentanyl remains a major problem here. He said it's such a serious issue that two known drug users visited to the office to tell the drug unit that they've, "got bad dope in the county."
McDuffie added, “It's here and its killing people. We have had an overabundance of young people that have died because of overdoses."
The sheriff is in the budget process now, a job made more difficult by soaring inflation. McDuffie said he has had to increase the allocation for fuel and even for groceries for the jail.
The sheriff’s office purchased an X-ray machine last year and McDuffie said it has used frequently.
McDuffie said, "We have found all kinds of stuff that have been put in people's places that really should not have things put in those places."
In conjunction with Blue Line Solutions, the sheriff's office has put cameras in place to try to curb speeding in school zones. McDuffie said they seem to be working well, saying speeding has been reduced 84 percent since their implementation.
McDuffie many drivers mistakenly believe the cameras are operational only when the lights are flashing.
"It's a school zone anytime there are kids in the school,” he warned. “Twice a day there is a reduced speed in that school zone but it's a school zone all day. The cameras fire a laser beam that pinpoints the speeding vehicle.
“The violations are sent to the sheriff's office and, once verified, citations are sent out in the mail.”
McDuffie said the volume of traffic is steadily increasing in the county.
"We're hoping the new (Effingham Parkway set to open in 2025) and some of the new stuff will relieve some of that,” McDuffie said.
He also said that the way the county is reconfiguring some of the traffic in the area around McCall and Blue Jay roads will relieve some of the pressure on the south end. He said a new county truck ordinance has helped.
The sheriff said the increase in the number and size of warehouses in the county have resulted in heavier truck traffic. He said there have incidents where trucks pulled in to the Park of Commerce on the county's south end only to back out onto Ga. Hwy 21, causing delays.
McDuffie said he thinks the opening of the Effingham Parkway will help the conjestion but worried that the relief may not be very noticeable.
Other areas of concern in the county are drugs and gang activity.
“What we’re seeing a lot of now is the gang members in Savannah moving up here and then go to Statesboro or Savannah and do their crimes there,” he said.
McDuffie tapped Community Laison Leslie Dunn to help determine how big of a problem gangs are in the county. In addition to Dunn, deputies Kris Withem and Richard Beckum are members of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association.
Scam telephone calls are still pervasive in the community and the problem seems to be growing. McDuffie warned citizens that if a pitch sounds too good to be true it probably is.
McDuffie said people should look up telephone numbers listed on official-looking documents before calling them.