The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department narcotics unit shrank while Sheriff Billy Long was being investigated in connection with alleged drug crimes, but department officials say the staffing changes were not for the sheriff’s personal gain.
In fact, said Don Gorman, the department’s director of administration, officials saw no red flags in day-to-day department operations during the undercover investigation, which began in March 2007 and resulted in Sheriff Long’s arrest Saturday.
“It was something we did just to adjust,” Mr. Gorman, who is over all personnel matters, said of the reassignment of three narcotics officers last July. “They were farmed out to other divisions.”
The unit’s budget was reduced from $1,028,897 to $969,512 between last fiscal year and this year as the sheriff shuffled priorities, according to Mr. Gorman.
Also, two of the unit’s nine officers were transferred to jobs serving outstanding warrants, the backlog of which Sheriff Long had pledged to reduce after taking office in September 2006.
The third narcotics transfer went to the criminal investigations division, which needed help with a growing number of car break-ins, Mr. Gorman said.
The department’s special investigations unit now functions with six investigators, with two of those officers assigned to federal task forces, according to department officials. But two canine/highway interdiction officers have been helping out since December, Mr. Gorman said.
The department has a working relationship with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, according to DEA Special Agent Enrique Nieves, who said he hasn’t “noticed any change one way or the other” as far as the unit’s activity level.
However, he said, the reduction in staff was noticeable.
“Six is a small number for a narcotics division,” Agent Nieves said.
The division at one time had six investigators, two additional task force officers and two interdiction officers for a total of 10 under former Sheriff John Cupp, according to Tommy Farmer, who supervised the sheriff’s narcotics division before being named statewide director of the Tennessee Methamphetamine Task Force in February 2007.
Mr. Farmer said he could not speak to department operations but said the officers working there “are of the highest caliber” and serve the community to the best of their ability.
The Chattanooga Police Department’s special investigations division now has eight full-time narcotics officers, three vice officers and three highway interdiction officers, according to Lt. Kirk Eidson, who heads the division.
Lt. Eidson said he, too, noticed a staffing cut but not a cut in the workload of the remaining narcotics officers at the sheriff’s department.
He noted that reassignments are common in law enforcement agencies and do not necessarily indicate “any type of ulterior motive ... Sometimes it’s just that people leave or are reassigned, and it’s awhile before we get people (to replace them).”
The county’s drug unit is “making seizures all the time,” according to Mr. Gorman.
Department spokesman Sgt. Max Templeton said he could not release specific seizure data publicly for fear of compromising the unit’s work. But he agreed that narcotics investigators have remained active.
Hamilton County District Attorney General Bill Cox noted it is difficult to determine whether drug prosecutions have increased or decreased at the department since Sheriff Long took office in September 2006, as “it takes a long time for the drug cases to get through the pipeline ... It’s hard to tell, from my vantage point.”
Sheriff Long is charged with extortion, money laundering, giving a gun to someone he knew was a convicted felon and possessing five or more kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride with intent to distribute. He will remain in federal custody at least until his bond hearing, which is scheduled for Friday afternoon.