Effingham County has made more than a dent on the county’s drug problem, Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie said.
McDuffie, who faces Bloomingdale Police Chief Rick Gossett in the July 15 Republican primary, said his department has made huge inroads on drug traffic in the county, so much so that dealers go out of their way to avoid Effingham.
“We’ve put a big dent in the drug traffic in this county,” McDuffie said Saturday at a meet and greet with supporters.
“But if you draw back, it’ll come back. Anything that goes unchecked comes back.”
In the last couple of years, the sheriff’s department has made a significant reduction in the number of meth labs, according to McDuffie. Deputies also have confiscated over $170,000 in cash and 24 cars.
“We also own three houses,” McDuffie said.
But as the authorities drive meth makers out, they also become hard to find. McDuffie said word on the department’s efforts has spread and that has made the drug operations go further underground.
“We still have some meth labs,” he said, “but they are hard to find because of the reputation we have.”
McDuffie, who has been sheriff for six years, said his department is at full staff now and he pointed to recent efforts to improve the starting pay for deputies.
“We’ve been able to get the salaries up to a decent starting salary and to get these guys some decent money,” he said.
While McDuffie acknowledged the low pay and benefits has caused deputies to leave, and he said the department has tried to weed out bad ones.
“We’ve had a turnover rate. Some of that is because of — some because we asked them to leave,” he said. “All I ask out of a deputy is they do the right thing. If they can’t, we ask them to leave.”
Recruiting and retaining officers has been difficult in the past, McDuffie said, and he had six deputies leave the department to take better paying positions with the Georgia Ports Authority in Savannah.
“Now, I’m getting two of them back,” he said. “I’ve got Savannah-Chatham Metro officers who said they wanted to come work for me, ‘but I can’t come for you for what you pay.’ Now we’ve got good benefits and a good, decent starting salary.”
McDuffie said it’s his responsibility to give his deputies the best equipment he can. Just how important safety is was reaffirmed to McDuffie in 2006 when one of his deputies was killed in a pursuit.
“We’ve got good equipment and that’s a paramount issue. Safety is number one,” he said.
He also wants to be able to bolster his current complement of deputies. The department is averaging nearly 4,100 calls per month and fielded almost 4,800 in February.
“I want to add more officers,” McDuffie said. “We need to.”
Currently he has six deputies on the road during the day — who can be supplemented by personnel in the office — and seven on the road at night. McDuffie said he often hears from deputies and citizens on how he’s at the scene of an incident, even if it’s in the early morning hours.
“I can’t sit at home and ask these guys to do things I’m not willing to do,” he said. “Two or three in the morning, as sheriff, that’s my job. I owe it to them to continue to work as hard as I can. I feel like that’s my job. That’s what I get paid to do.”
The county’s three biggest law enforcement issues now, as McDuffie sees them, are traffic, domestic violence and drug traffic. McDuffie said he wants to establish a traffic unit “to keep the streets safe” and build the crisis intervention unit back up.
“Anytime you get growing pains like we’ve got, you’ll have issues,” he said. “I want to stay on top of these and continue what we’ve got going on. I’ve worked for six years to get us to the point where we’re at.”
The sheriff’s department budget for fiscal year 2009 is $5.8 million and salaries alone make up nearly half of that.
“I have to be a good steward of the tax dollars,” McDuffie said. “We are using drug money, we are using grant money. We got a grant for $11,000 to put computers in the cars. We can keep the deputies on the roads and keep them in the neighborhoods where they need to be. I think that’s important.”
With the in-car computers, the sheriff said, deputies can process tickets and complaints without having to go back to the office.
McDuffie has been in law enforcement for 31 years and has spent the last 25 years in the Effingham sheriff’s department. He’s been an Effingham resident for 21 years.
“I raised a son in this county and he’s 25 years old. I’ve got a daughter who is 10 years old,” he said. “As a sheriff and a parent, I have to do the best job I can to ensure their safety and the safety of this county.”