Sheriffs speak at LWV forum
Gangs, extradition among topics discussed by Brown, Wigington

CONYERS - It was a cold night, but the sheriffs of Rockdale and Newton counties were given a warm reception at Tuesday night's forum hosted by the Newton-Rockdale League of Women Voters at Rockdale Career Academy.

Rockdale Sheriff Jeff Wigington and Newton Sheriff Ezell Brown presented information about their respective departments and fielded a series of questions from the audience ranging from 911 calls to extradition of international criminals.

League member Jean Hambrick moderated the two-hour event.

Both sheriffs have 30-plus years in law enforcement and both talked about knowing and working with each other over the years.

Brown gave a quick synopsis of his early career and told the audience of his success as a detective and later with creating a sex offender mapping program for the Newton County Sheriff's Office, which has been used as a prototype for other agencies.

Newton County's list of sex offenders has grown from approximately 50 in 2005 to the 200-plus now on the list, while Wigington said Rockdale's sex offender population is about 40.

Brown said his mapping program began with a 16x12-inch piece of paper and push pins and has evolved to the point that residents can go to the NCSO Web site (www.newtonsheriffga.org) and view a map that shows where each sex offender lives in the county.

Brown said business was brisk at the Newton County Law Enforcement Center with 625 to 630 inmates incarcerated daily, 3,600 active warrants, not to mention other duties such as court security, criminal investigations, community outreach programs, a drug task force and SWAT team facilitated in conjunction with the Covington Police Department, and 65 to 70 deputies patrolling the streets. Of the approximately 280 employees, there are 213 sworn deputies.

"We seek to hire a diverse group to reflect the population we serve," Brown told the audience.

One of the concerns voiced by the league when issuing the invitation to the sheriffs to speak concerned the economic downturn and how that might affect public safety.

Brown pointed to the fact that his office recently contributed to the county's austerity efforts by slashing $400,000 from his budget. He said he was especially concerned that budget cuts for his department did not include furloughs for deputies or other employees.

"These are hard times. I wouldn't want to see anyone losing a job, so we looked at areas where we could postpone spending until the economy is better," he said.

Brown showed the audience his Crime Watch mapping system, which shows areas of the county where certain crimes are occurring. This, too, is available to the public on the NCSO Web site.

Brown said the mapping system afforded opportunities for the public and his officers - and even criminals - to quickly see what types of crimes are occurring in their neighborhood and take proper precautions, officers know what to watch for while on patrol and can recognize trends, and criminals can expect both the public and law enforcement to be watching and waiting for them.

He said a new program is soon to be initiated in conjunction with the mapping system known as Power Shifts, a group of patrols that will be dedicated to certain high-crime areas identified through the Crime Watch map.

Brown stressed to the group that "Law enforcement cannot do it alone," and he appealed to community residents to assist them in reporting suspicious activities, supporting the Neighborhood Watch program and becoming involved in keeping their community safe.

Another item of interest to the League was whether the sheriff's offices had a handle on gang activity. Brown said gangs are "a reality in Newton and beyond," but said school resource officers are tasked with cataloging any intelligence they receive on the subject and turning that information over to an investigator who follows up on potential gang activity. He said each school resource officer is "highly trained in detecting gang activity," and two of those officers were considered experts in the field.

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.