Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn will withdraw his department from a Cobb drug task force after nearly four decades in order to focus more on drug prevention and intervention efforts, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.
The change comes as law enforcement leaders across the country reconsider decades of harsh drug enforcement policies, and as Cobb struggles with one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state.
Flynn told the AJC there were “no hard feelings” behind his agency’s departure from the Marietta, Cobb and Smyrna Organized Crime Task Force Narcotics Unit, which was founded in 1980 as the war on drugs was taking off.
Rather, the Marietta chief said the unit was designed to pursue traditional drug investigations, while his department has moved toward “evidence-based” policing that views the opioid epidemic and rising prevalence of methamphetamine as public health issues as much as public safety problems.
“We just can’t arrest our way out of it,” Flynn said. “We need to get these people treatment.”
Flynn said his officers will continue to crack down on drug sellers and traffickers, but that they may use their discretion to direct willing addicts into treatment, and nonviolent offenders should be referred to one of Cobb’s seven accountability courts when possible.
Frank V. Rotondo , executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said Flynn was the first police chief in Georgia he knew of to pull out of a narcotics task force, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if others followed.
Police departments across the state are struggling with recruitment and retention, he said, and law enforcement leaders need to reprioritize with limited resources. But he also spoke of a “changing climate in society” toward prosecuting low level drug offenders.
“Chief Flynn is one of the most proactive police chiefs I’ve ever seen in my whole career,” Rotondo said. “He’s been on the cutting edge of many, many changes.”
VIDEO: Previous coverage of Cobb police
One of the organizations Flynn cited as a resource for intervention is The Zone, a recovery community center founded in 2016 by Missy Owen, a Cobb mother who lost her son to a drug overdose in 2014. Marietta PD has developed a close working relationship with The Zone: officers provide security, resources and even work out in the center’s gym.
Owen said having the officers build friendships with people in recovery has “totally changed the mindset” on both sides.
“I’ve heard people in recovery say, ‘Wow I wouldn’t have looked twice at a cop and now I love hanging out with them,’” she said. Similarly, she said, the officers have become less tolerant of colleagues who misunderstand addiction as a disease.
Owen had mixed feelings, however, about Marietta’s decision to pull out of the MCS unit.
“I’m glad that the focus is on intervention and prevention but we still have a ton of drugs coming into our community,” she said.
LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who until last fall was the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said financial and personnel constraints are forcing law enforcement leaders across the country to re-evaluate special assignments.
“Many in law enforcement recognize that some of the enforcement actions could be better pursued as other alternative actions and that would include prevention and treatment,” he said.
In Marietta, the three officers currently assigned to the task force will be reassigned by May 1. Cobb Police Chief Mike Register, who is expected to become the county’s new public safety director, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The MCS unit has in the past processed civil forfeiture assets on behalf of its members. Flynn said the majority of Marietta’s civil forfeiture funds come from federal channels, and he does not believe his department will be impacted by the loss of the MCS funds.
The Marietta, Cobb and Smyrna Organized Crime Task Force Narcotics Unit was founded in 1980 as the war on drugs was taking off. Agencies across the country created similar units in the 1980s and 1990s to pursue complex drug, vice and organized crime cases across jurisdictional lines. Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn told the AJC he plans to withdraw from the unit as his department focuses more on drug prevention and intervention efforts. Cobb has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state.
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Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC