UCSO ‘cracks’ down on drugs
By JOHN WORTHEN News-Times Staff The car was pumping bass, windows down, chrome wheels flashing. Two men inside were on their way to a drug deal and never thought twice about blowing through a stop sign.
The car careened in and out of traffic before screeching into the parking lot of a local convenience store.
The cocky driver slid out of his car and into a pickup truck, where his customer was waiting with a wad of cash. But before the deal went down, someone knocked on the truck window.
"Union County Sheriff ’s Office, you’re under arrest," a deputy told the stunned criminals.
Back at the stop sign, an undercover UCSO car spotted the reckless driver and began pursuit of the two men, who never realized they were being tailed until the knock on the window. And that’s fine with UCSO Detective David Gates Jr., because it makes his job much easier.
Gates, along with seven other UCSO deputies, is part of a pilot program that Union County Sheriff Ken Jones began several weeks ago to curtail criminal activity throughout the county.
Dubbed Criminal Patrol Units, or CPUs, the group is made up of eight UCSO deputies who form two fourman teams.
Each team is assigned to an undercover vehicle that’s equipped with out-of-sight blue lights and a siren.
For now, Jones plans to continue the program for several months to see how successful it is, but there’s a possibility that it could become a permanent addition to the UCSO.
"Right now we are just trying it to see how it goes," Jones said. "But at the rate it’s going now, we have a real successful program and I may consider extending it."
Each of the eight deputies work on their scheduled days off and are paid overtime. CPU shifts typically last between six and eight hours, depending on the amount of paperwork that piles up, Gates said.
Gates, who leads a patrol team, is happy to help make Union County a safer place during his off time, and it’s scenes like the one at the convenience store last weekend that keep his desire fresh.
"That was a really good case," Gates said. "We got three felonies and a misdemeanor charge for running a stop sign and appearing to be suspicious. This guy was so into selling these drugs that he jumped out of his car and got into another truck. The whole time we had the lights going." One of the most peculiar patrols for Gates’ team happened during their first night on the job. Just about everyone they stopped for questioning had a copper crack pipe somewhere on their person. Gates said he and his partners were baffled because they’ve never confiscated so much drug paraphernalia in one evening.
The team has a running joke that they plan to sell the pipes for scrap metal and buy refreshments for their next patrol. When they’re not confiscating drug paraphernalia or making arrests, the CPUs comb Union County looking for criminal activity — they take notes, run surveillance and keep tabs on high crime areas. If a CPU spots someone loitering in front of a store, they may stop to ask them basic questions like, "What’s your name, or why have you been standing in front of this store for 20 minutes? "
After questioning, the suspicious persons are photographed and entered into a database for later use, a practice that paid off in a big way last week. The UCSO had been buying drugs from a dealer for several months, but the only information they had on the suspect was a street name. Last week, Gates’ CPU spotted that same dealer on a street corner looking for customers. After taking his picture and getting his real name, the CPU obtained a warrant for arrest based on earlier intelligence. Jones said these types of arrests are key to the future of the CPUs.
"They have been averaging between four and eight felony arrests on Friday and Saturday night, with drug charges or above," Jones said. "It’s really paid off so far, especially with the drug-related arrests."
As good as things are going for the CPUs, the UCSO has received some flack for its new program. Many people have given the CPUs the nickname "jump out boys," since criminals never know where the units will show up next. And there have been questions raised about the legitimacy of the undercover program. Looking down at the arrest sheets of several known drug dealers, Gates said he knows the CPUs are taking criminals off the street, and to him, that’s all that matters.
"People have been referring to us as the ‘jump out boys,’ but that’s not what we are called, and we don’t like to be called that," Gates said.
"We are strictly a criminal patrol unit for the sheriff’s office.
"We aren’t out there looking for people driving 56 (miles per hour) in a 55 (mile-perhour zone). We are here to get the drug dealers and thieves, and they are beginning to think twice before they get out on the road because they don’t know where we might come from. It’s not gonna be the green and white patrol car. There’s no telling what it will be."