Fentanyl is becoming an increasing problem for law enforcement, as is the mental health situation of the homeless population, top law enforcement officers said.
Liberty County Sheriff Will Bowman, Hinesville Assistant Police Chief Tracey Howard, Midway Police Capt. Mark Rich and Walthourville interim Police Chief Christopher Reed spoke at Tuesday morning’s Liberty County Chamber of Commerce Eggs and Issues breakfast on law enforcement and the challenges the profession faces today. “Fentanyl is real,” Sheriff Bowman said. “All it takes is 2 grams to kill you.”
Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more powerful than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The illegally produced drug — the commercially- produced fentanyl has uses as a painkiller — is said to be part of the 150 deaths per day from synthetic opioid overdoses across the country. The drug is so powerful that even touching it has been known to incur overdose effects.
Fentanyl is getting shipped illegally across the southern U.S. border, Maj. Howard said, and local dealers are cutting it into pills, without knowing how strong their pills are. There have been 20 overdose deaths in Liberty County in the last year and a half alone, he said. Howard also cited a recent incident where a couple had been taking fentanyl and the woman survived, with brain damage, but her husband did not. Hinesville officers had to administer Narcan on back-to-back nights recently to combat fentanyl effects on victims, and one man required two doses of Narcan.
Law enforcement officers also are becoming the front line when dealing with homelessness and mental health issues.
“A lot of times people who are homeless have mental health issues, and either they are undiagnosed or untreated or cannot afford medicine,” Maj. Howard said.
While the city provides resources and has homeless prevention efforts, Maj. Howard said there are many homeless people who come from Savannah, use those resources until they run out and then commit crimes. Howard said the police department also meets regularly with Liberty Regional Medical Center officials on mental health issues.
“We’re trying to get a facility to treat mental health,” he said.
The sheriff’s office has seen a rise in domestic violence calls, Sheriff Bowman said. In many instances, what’s involved is a person who is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he added.
“We answer five or six calls a day just on domestic violence,” he said.
Hiring and retaining officers also has become increasingly difficult, Maj. Howard said. The current climate against law enforcement has not helped attract quality candidates, officials added.
“A competitive pay scale and competitive benefits is tough on a small community to be able to do that,” Capt. Rich said.
“It’s not an easy task,” Maj. Howard said.
Rich said it takes the Midway department about 18 months to get a qualified applicant on board. However, once officers find out about other agencies paying higher salaries, it is difficult to keep them on the force.
“The ones we have are very dedicated,” he said.
Sheriff Bowman pointed out that Liberty County is 603 square miles, and there are 14 miles of interstate highway running through the county.
“We have more than 80,000 people in Liberty County. We have more than 1.5 million people come through Liberty County on a daily basis,” he said. “So we always have people coming through our county.”
There were 117 deputies on staff when Bowman took over as sheriff, he said. The staffing is now up to 153 but a county of Liberty’s size should have 235, the sheriff said.
“That’s how short (on personnel) we are,” he said.
As an example, if there are five patrol deputies on a shift and two are called out for an accident on I-95 and two others are called to answer a domestic violence situation, that leaves one road deputy for the remainder of the county.
“Retention is always hard for us to do,” Sheriff Bowman said. “You can always get people and do all the testing but you never know what type of officer you have until you get them on the ground. We’re constantly trying to get people in. We’re going to have to pick it up.”
Chief Reed said he is at full staff and complimented the Walthourville city leadership for that. But he added that law enforcement still needs the public’s help.
“Have an open mind to law enforcement,” he said. “When I was growing up, the police was your friend. We have to get back to the mindset that the police are there to help us, not hurt us.”
Sheriff Bowman said respecting and supporting law enforcement begins at home.
“Don’t tell your kids, ‘I’m going to get the police to lock you up.’ Now you’ve put fear into your child,” he said. “We are here to help at all times.”
“The more support we can get from the community, the better,” Capt. Rich said. “The more reinforcement we can get from the community, the better.”
Maj. Howard pointed out that officers are people too and have families and their own issues as well, and are expected to perform their job, often in stressful or dangerous situations, at a high level of professionalism.
“In Hinesville, we are fortunate,” he said. “We have a community that supports law enforcement.”
Capt. Rich said his department is seeing an increase in property crimes and with the holidays approaching, more such crimes likely will take place. “If you’re going on vacation, come by the police department,” he said. “If you give us a heads-up, we can put extra eyes on the house while we’re on patrol.”