Join The Debate: Toccoa Police Chief, GBI officials join ConnectLocal to talk gangs, drugs in Toccoa

Toccoa is not exempt when it comes to gangs and drugs, but neither is it an example of the worst case scenario



  • Cobb County police say a Lithia Springs teenager is responsible for the murder of a local high school student, the rape and molestation of an 11-year-old girl, and the gang-related armed robbery and assault of a man outside a Steak ‘n Shake restaurant.

  • Thursday, was the first of many gang task force meetings scheduled for 2020. Local leaders, law enforcement, and community members filled a single room in the government center, in which they discussed methods of intervention and prevention of gangs in the area.

  • Gang members arrested in murder of Coweta County teen

  • North Georgia man pleads guilty to gang, meth trafficking charges

  • Alleged gang member under investigation in home invasion death of 14-year-old girl

  • Governor Kemp proposes seven new GBI positions to fight gangs in Georgia

  • Atlanta police chief details expanding influence of gangs operating inside city.

Those headlines, stripped from media reports across the state of Georgia in the first two months of 2020, are barely the tip of the iceberg. News of gang-related crime and disruption leads the news on a frequent and consistent basis.


Prompted by that frequency of gang-related activity in Georgia and across the country, ConnectLocal.News contacted local law enforcement leadership to find out if gang activity was a problem here in our community.


Stephens County Sheriff Randy Shirley commented that gangs are definitely a problem in large cities like Atlanta, and maybe even Gainesville, but said that Stephens County is not affected.


“I think in Toccoa, they’ve had a couple problems, be we haven’t seen anything as far as in the county,” he assured ConnectLocal.


Toccoa Police Chief Jimmy Mize, however, felt the issue within the city a significant enough issue that his response to our inquiry was to arrange a meeting for ConnectLocal with himself, and two representatives from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to discuss gang activity and the closely-related drug crimes within the city.


To avoid unintentional emphasis – either over-estimating or underestimating – the prevalence of local gang activity through ConnnectLocal’s writing and choice of quotes, their comments are presented below in a verbatim format, with minimal ConnectLocal content. As the questions posed to the officials, and their comments, include some level of opinion and personal observation, this article is being presented in the Editorial section of ConnectLocal; however, it should be noted that the information brought to the table by Mize and the GBI agents is direct, hands-on working knowledge and experience gained in Toccoa and the surrounding small towns, communities and counties, not imported facts, figures and incidents from Gainesville or Atlanta.


Discussion participants:

Jimmy Mize, Toccoa Police Chief


Trent Hillsman, GBI – Special Agent in Charge of the Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office (ARDEO), a multi-agency taskforce that includes the Toccoa Police Department


Mike Marlar, GBI – Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the Appalachian Regional Drug Enforcement Office (ARDEO) and member of the Executive Board of the Georgia Gang Investigators Association.


CL: An inquiry to Jimmy about gangs resulted in a meeting with members of the drug task force. Can I assume that means there is a strong tie between drug activity, and gang activity?


SAC Hillsman: We’re seeing a lot of our bigger drug dealers are part of some sort of organization. Some are street gangs, and some are even higher – more cartel-driven organizations. Most (drug) distribution connects to an organization of some sort.


CL: When people read about “gangs” in the news, what are we talking about?


ASAC Marlar: Here’s the thing; it’s not against the law to be in a gang, its against the law to be in a gang that commits crimes, so I always refer to them as criminal street gangs … As to what Trent was talking about with narcotics, narcotics equals guns, guns equals gangs. Gangs thrive off of intimidation and fear, and in the drug world, how do you make yourself a larger enterprise? You use fear and intimidation.


CL: From a Toccoa citizens view, from the public viewpoint, when they hear about “gangs,” they are picturing the Crips and Bloods, or gangbanger wannabes and other images, often portrayed by movies and television. Is this accurate? What does the public need to be on the lookout for?


ASAC Marlar: About ‘wanna-be’s: A ‘wanna-be’ is a ‘gonna be.’ It’s just like wanting to be a policeman. He (Hillsman) did, I did. And hey, we’re policemen. And gangs recruit the younger ones...because they get a slap on the hand for doing these crimes that an adult would be put in prison for.


SAC Hillsman: And it’s the younger ones that they are getting to do the ‘entering auto’ crimes. A lot of the guns we get, some that are used in crimes, are stolen out of cars by the younger kids, and then passed up (to other members of the gang).


CL: Given that information, are gangs a problem specifically here in Toccoa?


Chief Mize: As far as our drug problem and our theft problem, a lot of it leads back to gang initiations and gangs. Is every one of them a gang situation? No. But we have a large number in our area. We have organized groups operating in Toccoa.


CL: How do you address that as Law Enforcement, is it any different than dealing with your one-off criminals?


SAC Hillsman: One of the reasons you are seeing a lot in the media right now is because that is one of the initiatives the Governor has made, saying, ‘hey, we are going to attack that,” and one of the things that is now happening with that is with the prosecution of gang member. Now, when we charge someone with narcotics, if we can show that criminal organization, if we can show they are working with a gang, there are additional charges that can go onto that. And so it makes it not harder, but a little more legwork for the investigators to play connect-the-dots to show these organizational connections, but the then you have the enhancements to the original charges.


ASAC Marlar: When you add the gang charges, that’s tacking on five to 20 (years).


CL: How successful is that in cutting down gang activity?


SAC Hillsman: Just in my experience, it is successful when we can get prosecution to agree and we can show the steps (of the investigation proving gang involvement), because it does add time to the sentences. As far as a deterrent, right now, the problem is a lot of these gang members are reaching out to people that don't feel like they are part of something. If you have a strong family at home, I think that is the best deterrent. To make people feel part of something - that is the lure of the gangs, to have that ‘family.’ I wanted to be part of the football team when I was growing up, and this is the same thing with these guys wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s every human. We want that need to be channeled into a more positive direction, and I don't know that locking these guys up – it may be a deterrent for some, but to me, the cure for all these crimes is at the home – giving them something to cling to other than a gang.


CL: You all mention the youth aspect of gangs. What age is this becoming a problem? Is this a high school thing?


Mize, Hillsman, Marlar: Middle school.


CL: Does that include here in Toccoa now?


Chief Mize: We don’t see it as much in the middle school during the school season, you see it more when they have free time in the summer, but yes, thats when you’ll see a lot of juvenile cases start rising.


CL: You mentioned the importance of family, but what can families, and what can the community as a whole, do to address this problem and to help law enforcement?


SAC Hillsman: One of the things we’ve started doing a bit more is educating the educators and the school system of what to look for so maybe we can intervene a little earlier. Now technically, that’s not our “job” - we’re here to enforce the law, but we’re more than willing to educate someone if they can get to these kids before they are having to deal with the police.


Chief Mize: People can educate themselves, and we have been pushing the “See Something, Say Something” initiative for a couple years now, and its worked really well for us, especially in our small community. People know their norm, and they know when something is out of the norm. it may just be a little change – a car coming through late at night, or hanging around, and that will get the whole neighborhood up in arms. Just call and we’ll check it out.


CL: That comes back to the perception of what a gang member is. How do you tell someone is a gang member? Is it all red bandanas and graffiti?


ASAC Marlar: It’s different things in different areas. There are tattoos, hand signs, marks; some do run colors. If you see a guy wearing all red, its part of the piece of (the puzzle) it’s not just a color, but that is a telltale sign.


SAC Hillsman: One things I’ve seen, when you think of gangs, you think young black male. But here’s the issue, there are white supremacist gangs. We see that a lot, especially working with narcotics. WE see Brotherhood, Ghostface, a lot of different groups, so it’s hard to paint a picture of what a gang member looks like.


Chief Mize: And they can fly colors or carry colors, and some people may not know what they are looking at. They may (wear) colors of some basketball team or football team. It’s can be hard to tell.


CL: Is there any special training for local officers in how to deal with gangs and the connection to drugs?


ASAC Marlar: We have actually sponsored some of (Mize’s) investigators with the Georgia Gang Investigators Association Training. There is basic and advance training, certification, conferences – it is probably some of the best training out there. Also, in our office, we work narcotics, but if that gang nexus appears, then we can bring in other people in the office who may have more experience to formulate the case. The certified ones – that expert testimony helps.


CL: What is the level of cooperation between law enforcement and the court system, with prosecutors, here.


SAC Hillsman: At GBI it is a huge push, we have a liaison to the cases, and there is great cooperation. We have to be educated on how to make the case and they have to be educated on how to present the case, and we’re all learning together and some areas are further along than others, but there is great cooperation.


CL: When we talk about drugs, are we talking about cocaine? Marijuana? Prescription drugs?


ASAC Marlar: In this area, meth is king. Meth is king everywhere. And because of the pill epidemic, the opioid crisis, heroin has had a huge uptick, and you get a lot of overdoses because a lot of that is being cut with Fentanyl. Prescription pills are definitely out there and a problem, but those cases are very hard to make.


CL: When you run into burglaries, thefts, violent crimes, does it usually come back to drugs?

Chief Mize: A lot of the time, yes. Out of the last several homicides, not including the most recent one, they have all been drug related.


CL: Is it getting better? Is there light at the end of the tunnel?


Chief Mize: I see us making a dent. I don't know how big of a dent, but between the Taskforce and the agents that are out here, I see a big increase in arrests and a dent (in the problem).


CL: There is already a problem with overcrowding in many jails, is the increases in drug and gang arrests causing early releases due to space, so you have a revolving door?


ASAC Marlar: The beauty of gang charges that we were talking about earlier, is the bond conditions are totally different, even with juveniles. Their bond has to be set by the Superior Court Judge, which is different (than in most cases); they can’t associate with other gang members – even if their brother is one, they can’t live in the same house. It’s just a completely different structure, so they may get out, but you see them doing it again and you put them right back in.


CL: Is there a concern with the kids, with them recruiting the younger kids to commit these crimes, and once you put them in jail, getting out of that life is hard? Are you seeing more repeat offenders at a young age?


ASAC Marlar: A lot of the juvenile stuff goes back to what Trent was talking about, if juveniles have a good strong family structure, sometimes it may just be one time and no more, but sometimes it’s their downfall.


SAC Hillsman: I’ve been in law enforcement for more than 20 years across Georgia and that has always been an ongoing theme. People get started in crime, and they tend to keep on doing what they do, but there are success stories, and those are why we keep doing what we do. We are probably never going to completely do away with drugs in Northeast Georgia, but we can definitely put a dent in it, and help that one family, that one community.


CL: Any final comments?


SAC Hillsman: Toccoa/Stephens County is not alone in this. I started with the GBI in 2001, I’ve been in law enforcement across Georgia my whole life. Everyone has the issue. My hope is that people will educate themselves, pat attention to what your kids are doing if you have kids. I’m a parent and I’m very nosy, and it drives my kids crazy, but its important. Cooperate with law enforcement, let them know what is going on in the community. Talk to the patrol guys and let them know. Chief Mize has an open door policy, talk to him. We’re in this together. I know in the media now police can be seen as the bad guys – we’ve made mistakes, but we’re trying to make things better.


CL: So Toccoa is not “worst case,” but its also not exempt from the problem?


Chief Mize: We are by far not the worst, but we want to make sure we do everything we can to keep it that way.


FYI


2010 Georgia Code TITLE 16 - CRIMES AND OFFENSES CHAPTER 15 - STREET GANG TERRORISM AND PREVENTION § 16-15-4 - Participation in criminal gang activity prohibited

O.C.G.A. 16-15-4 (2010) 16-15-4. Participation in criminal gang activity prohibited (a) It shall be unlawful for any person employed by or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity through the commission of any offense enumerated in paragraph (1) of Code Section 16-15-3. (b) It shall be unlawful for any person to commit any offense enumerated in paragraph (1) of Code Section 16-15-3 with the intent to obtain or earn membership or maintain or increase his or her status or position in a criminal street gang. (c) It shall be unlawful for any person to acquire or maintain, directly or indirectly, through criminal gang activity or proceeds derived therefrom any interest in or control of any real or personal property of any nature, including money. (d) It shall be unlawful for any person who occupies a position of organizer, supervisory position, or any other position of management or leadership with regard to a criminal street gang to engage in, directly or indirectly, or conspire to engage in criminal gang activity. (e) It shall be unlawful for any person to cause, encourage, solicit, recruit, or coerce another to become a member or associate of a criminal street gang, to participate in a criminal street gang, or to conduct or participate in criminal gang activity. (f) It shall be unlawful for any person to communicate, directly or indirectly, with another any threat of injury or damage to the person or property of the other person or of any associate or relative of the other person with the intent to deter such person from assisting a member or associate of a criminal street gang to withdraw from such criminal street gang. (g) It shall be unlawful for any person to communicate, directly or indirectly, with another any threat of injury or damage to the person or property of the other person or of any associate or relative of the other person with the intent to punish or retaliate against such person for having withdrawn from a criminal street gang. (h) It shall be unlawful for any person to communicate, directly or indirectly, with another any threat of injury or damage to the person or property of the other person or of any associate or relative of the other person with the intent to punish or retaliate against such person for refusing to or encouraging another to refuse to become or obtain the status of a member or associate of a criminal street gang. (i) It shall be unlawful for any person to communicate, directly or indirectly, with another any threat of injury or damage to the person or property of the other person or of any associate or relative of the other person with the intent to punish or retaliate against such person for providing statements or testimony against criminal street gangs or any criminal street gang member or associate. (j) In addition to the prohibitions set forth in Code Section 16-10-93, it shall be unlawful for any person to communicate, directly or indirectly, with another any threat of injury or damage to the person or property of the other person or of any associate or relative of the other person with the intent to intimidate, deter, or prevent such person from communicating to any law enforcement or corrections officer, prosecuting attorney, or judge information relating to criminal street gangs, criminal street gang members or associates, or criminal gang activity. (k) (1) Any person who violates subsection (a), (b), or (c) of this Code section shall, in addition to any other penalty imposed by law, be punished by imprisonment for not less than five nor more than 15 years or by a fine of not less than $10,000.00 nor more than $15,000.00, or both. (2) Any person who violates subsection (d) of this Code section may, in addition to any other penalty provided by law, be punished by imprisonment for an additional ten years which shall be served consecutively to any other sentence imposed on such person by law. (3) Any person who violates subsection (e), (f), (g), (h), (i) or (j) of this Code section shall, in addition to any other penalty provided by law, be punished by imprisonment for not less than three nor more than ten years. (l) In addition to any other penalty provided by this Code section, all sentences imposed under this Code section shall require as a special condition of the sentence that the person sentenced shall not knowingly have contact of any kind or character with any other member or associate of a criminal street gang, shall not participate in any criminal gang activity, and, in cases involving a victim, shall not knowingly have contact of any kind or character with any such victim or any member of any such victim's family or household. (m) Any crime committed in violation of this Code section shall be considered a separate offense.

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