By Sandi P. Beason
TUPELO – Minutes after being sworn in as Lee County sheriff, Jim Johnson gained approval from the board of supervisors to dissolve the county's vice narcotics task force and join a multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement agency.
Two narcotics officers will be paid by the county but will work with the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit, a regional body of agents from the Tupelo Police Department, Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies.
“Any time you share information, it's a positive move,” Johnson said.
The interlocal agreement, which gives other Lee County municipalities the option to sign on, was approved unanimously by the supervisors during the regular meeting Monday. It will not cost the county additional money, the new sheriff said.
Johnson said two Lee County officers will be housed at the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit “and 20-something officers will come back to assist us with fighting narcotics.”
“You will be out the salary of two employees you would have paid anyway and two vehicles,” he said.
But other operating expenses, such as housing for the officers and telephones, will fall to the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit.
If the agreement doesn't work, the county can back out with no penalty, he said.
NMNU is a multi-jurisdictional agency, but Lee County has never been a member. The two narcotics investigators on the sheriff's department employee roster are David Sheffield and Jason Willis.
“They do have a lot of experience,” Johnson said. “They have worked with North Mississippi Narcotics before. I not only looked at their reputation, moral standing and character, but at their conviction rate.”
County to benefit
Under Sheriff Larry Presley's administration, two narcotics officers – Jason Stanford and Danny Dillard – were assigned to the Lee County Vice Narcotics Task Force, along with one K-9 officer, Gary Dodds. None of the three was retained when Johnson was elected.
“I wouldn't join (NMNU) if I didn't think it would help,” Johnson said. “We're not going out there and allowing one group to run our narcotics (program). These two officers are under my command and are part of my structure. They're treated like other employees staffed here. We're sharing information. The evidence room and the crime lab is there.”
The county will benefit from the centralized location where information on drug trafficking is compiled. Other participating agencies are in Itawamba, Chickasaw, Prentiss and Pontotoc counties.
“Dope dealers don't know (boundaries),” said Tupelo Police Chief Harold Chaffin, a member of NMNU's controlling board. “Working together will make a difference for the good people of Lee County and Tupelo and everyone else.”
Johnson said he has studied the NMNU for a long time, and the move to join “is not anything against anybody.”
“I knew throughout my campaign that this was my idea of it,” he said. “There is an unlimited pool of resources available that you did not have under the vice narcotics task force.
“Change is good sometimes. I think certainly as I'm sitting here today, I think that's the right thing to do.”