Lee County Sheriff's Patrol car at the Lee County jail. Crime has not gone up much in Lee County despite its recent growth.
LEESBURG — One of the immutable laws of economic reality is that, sadly, crime follows money. And in Southwest Georgia, one of the nation’s poorest regions, much of the money — at least that measured in personal wealth — is moving into Lee County.
Amazingly, though, the crime that has become an accepted part of life in surrounding areas like Albany/Dougherty County, Dawson/Terrell County and Americus/Sumter County has not made a significant leap across the county line into Lee. And the county’s top crime fighter says there are reasons.
“Don’t get me wrong, crime is up pretty much everywhere,” Lee Sheriff Reggie Rachals said. “When the economy is this bad, a lot of people use it as an excuse to commit crimes. But I think we’ve been able to keep crime from getting out of hand by taking a proactive approach to crime prevention.
“We try to get on top of potential criminal activity rather than waiting to react to it.”
Rachals and Lee Sheriff’s Office Lt. Col. Chris Owens point to the work of their office’s Internet Crimes Division and its Gang Unit as examples of proactive law enforcement work.
“The idea with our Gang Unit is to suppress the development of gang activity early, before it really gets started,” Owens said. “While there is a great deal of gang-related crime in other communities in the region, we try to get to our young people early before they get involved with gangs.”
The recently formed Internet Crimes Division’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit received an award last year as the best new such program in the state. Rachals notes that the Lee ICAC unit is an example of utilizing the latest crime-fighting technology to combat a new kind of crime that was almost unheard-of a few years ago.
“Our Internet Crimes Against Children unit has made 10 arrests just in the last couple of weeks,” the sheriff said. “In order to keep up with some crime, you have to step up your technology and training. And you can often do that without significant cost to the taxpayers.
“The training for the (ICAC unit) and the computer that we use was paid for by the state. Even the travel expenses and the motel rooms our people stayed in were supplied by the state.”
As with most other taxpayer-funded agencies, Rachals and his staff are always conscious of the costs involved with fighting crime.
“Although our primary goal is to give the people of Lee County the protection and service they deserve, we know that money is always an issue,” he said. “We try to work with the County Commission to keep our funding needs down while still getting the equipment that’s necessary to do this job.
“We save the county a great deal of money by providing inmate labor at the courthouse, the magistrate’s office, the recreation department and the humane society.”
The commission has struggled over the past three years or so to keep the county’s budget in check without raising taxes or furloughing employees, but its chairman says the county has put as much money as possible into public safety.
“We’ve done everything possible, just short of raising the millage rate, to support public safety in Lee County,” Ed Duffy said. “This board’s focus is always to protect the health, welfare and safety of every citizen of the county. And if we’ve had a spare dollar in our budget, we’ve put it into the sheriff’s department, the jail and E-911.”
Commissioner Bill Williams, a CPA who serves as chairman of the commission’s Finance Committee, said the county has increased the budget of the sheriff’s office, the Lee County Jail and emergency communications by $1,037,271 over the past three years. The county has also, Williams notes, increased manpower by seven sheriff’s deputies, four jailers, two E-911 staffers and two other deputies hired for courthouse security despite a countywide hiring freeze.
“There are not many departments, other than the sheriff’s office, that has received additional funding or personnel in the last three years,” Williams said.
While the Lee Sheriff’s Office tries to keep up with the latest crime-fighting methods and technology to keep crime manageable in the most affluent county in Southwest Georgia, its officers know they’re never more than a few steps ahead of the criminals they’re battling.
“Burglaries and drugs are always going to be issues,” Rachals said. “And now that pecan prices are up, we’re constantly looking out for thieves in the many pecan orchards in the county. Crime is cyclic, it goes up and down, depending on the time of year.
“We’re working with the community to get their help in what we do. Neighborhood watch participation has increased more than 60 percent during the time we’ve been in office. And we’re using the latest (social media) like Facebook and our website to let folks in the community know what we’re doing.”
As Rachals is making this point, E-911 Director Larry Hill comes into the sheriff’s conference room to update Rachals and Owens on the county school lockdown that resulted from a threatened suicide in a nearby neighborhood.
“That’s a perfect example of how we’re keeping the community informed,” the sheriff says. “As soon as the schools were locked down, we put the word out so that parents would be aware of the situation.”
Crime may indeed follow the money, but Rachals assures citizens of Lee County he and his staff are battling to keep it at bay.
“I believe in setting agendas,” the sheriff says. “I have a list of things that I want to see happen. And we’re going to get them done. We may not be able to do things as quickly as we’d like because of budget issues, but that’s not going to stop us from getting the job done.”