ACE Unit

Top lawmen doubtful the ACE Unit, a collaborative task force created in 2013, will be restored following a bitter Sheriff’s race

Americans have never been more politically polarized than now as election officials in Georgia and across the nation have conducted multiple recounts in an historically tight presidential race amidst claims of voter fraud and insecure election processes. Many voters feel their way of life and economic security is threatened by the outcome of the presidential election, and only time will prove them right or wrong. Fallout from local elections, however, can affect – almost instantly – daily operations and services Pierce Countians take for granted.

At least one collaborative effort between the county’s two largest law enforcement agencies has fallen apart following a heated August run-off election between Sheriff Ramsey Bennett and challenger Blackshear PD Major Robby Boatright. Bennett won a third term by 141 votes. Boatright publicly announced shortly after his narrow loss that he plans to again be a candidate in four years.

The Aggressive Crime Enforcement (ACE) Unit, a joint task force between area law enforcement agencies created  with much ado in 2013 for investigating major crimes in the area, still exists, but in name only.

Sheriff Bennett told The Times in a recent interview the ACE Unit is now comprised solely of PCSO detectives.

“It is still the Aggressive Crime Enforcement (ACE) Unit, but it is made up of Sheriff’s office detectives and Sheriff’s office detectives only,” Bennett said.

Police Chief Wright confirmed none of his investigators are currently assigned to the ACE Unit and a Facebook page for the ACE Unit, reportedly managed by BPD employees, recently changed its name to Blackshear Police Department. Wright told The Times the former ACE Unit page was combined with the BPD social media page.

“It’s just going to have to be the way it used to be. They handle their county investigation and we’ll handle what happened in town,” Wright says.

“Basically there is no ACE Unit anymore. We simply have city investigators and county investigators. That’s one of the saddest parts about the election ... we have a lot of segregation now,” Boatright says.

In an article published in The Times in 2013, Bennett and Wright hailed the ACE Unit at the time as a move to combine existing resources and eliminate duplication of services on related cases crossing both jurisdictions.

“This is an extension of a new level of cooperation for the public to see,” Bennett said then.

“It’s more efficient and more effective,” Wright agreed seven years ago.

But that was then.

Today, following an acrimonious campaign, both lawmen speak carefully about their breakup.

Blackshear PD also benefited from the additional office space at the ACE Unit which mitigated the need for a police department expansion, but Wright says an expansion isn’t necessary now either.

Detectives use a mobile unit placed behind the PD for office space. BPD and the fire department share the building.

“Space is not an issue (now),” Wright said.

The ACE Unit was never officially created as a separate entity by way of an intergovernmental agreement between Pierce County and the City of Blackshear, but for the last seven years PCSO and BPD shared case-related expenses and split the cost of utilities at the ACE Unit office located behind the county tag office on Nichols Street.

Bennett and Wright maintained oversight of their own employees and paid their investigators. Each department used a different type of file, making it easy to distinguish which agency was taking the lead on a case.

Now, investigative work is done separately by each agency’s detectives, and there are no ongoing joint investigations. BPD detectives have reportedly not had access to the ACE Unit office since the summer.

Bennett confirmed BPD investigators were locked out of the ACE Unit office during the primary election, but points out security of the Courthouse and elections are his responsibility as sheriff and those locks are periodically changed.

“After their last investigator left, we changed the locks and the codes. That is correct,” Bennett says. “They allege that’s happened to them, but they won’t tell you how many times prior to that we changed the locks and the codes to get into the building over there on a periodic basis just for security reasons.”

Wright agrees locks were changed anytime there was a staffing turnover at either department. During the election, however, BPD’s detectives were never given new access codes to the building.

“We were denied the information,” Wright says.

Post election, are Pierce County residents still receiving quality law enforcement services? Are their tax dollars being used effectively?

Both lawmen say yes – citizens are receiving the same level of service and costs are not increasing as a result of the dissolved partnership.

“As far as daily operations at the Sheriff’s Office, our crime fighting ability and our ability to serve the public around us has in no way changed,” Bennett assures his constituents.

If anything is lacking now, Bennett concedes it would be the ACE Unit’s ability to mitigate any diplomatic challenges by assigning a different detective when needed to “help people’s feelings” if a citizen is unhappy with a particular detective’s investigative efforts.

Certain processes may not be as streamlined, he adds.

“We probably don’t have quite as much of that ability, but as far as our ability to fight crime, serve the people and best spend their taxpayer dollars, we’re moving forward and our service is just as good as it’s been,” the sheriff said.

Wright is cross-training his officers to help take the load off his full-time detectives.

“They’re trained and ready. They can help out ... with some of the smaller cases that would tie up a detective’s time,” Wright says.

BPD’s two full-time detectives are Boatright and Jacob Royal. Dale Wiley is a part-time investigator for the department.

The chief also hopes to secure a grant in the near future that will fund a gang and drug investigator position for three years.

Could the community still benefit from a joint task force like the ACE Unit?

Most definitely.

Will the fences between PCSO and BPD be mended anytime soon?

Most likely not.

“The concept (of the ACE Unit) is a very good one. It could still work, but ... I don’t think it would be a good idea for us to go back to a building that’s controlled by the sheriff,” Wright says. “There would have to be some kind of different arrangement. There’s no guarantee if we were to go back  ... we’re not going to get locked out again.”

Wright is also not willing to restructure his department to keep Boatright from working with the ACE Unit, a stipulation he suspects Bennett would demand for any future collaborations.

“We should work together. That’s the simple answer,” Wright says. “But, Robby and Jacob (Royal) are integral parts to my operation here and I don’t think he’s (the sheriff) going to have that.”

Bennett is doubtful a partnership will be reestablished, too – at least with the current administration in place at BPD.

“Somebody else chose to upset the apple cart, not me. But, we live in America. Robby was entitled to run (for sheriff) if he wanted to. That’s the America we know and love,” Bennett says. “Let’s move on.”

The sheriff concedes, however, he still needs all the law enforcement officers in Pierce County to keep at it, the ones employed with his department as well as the city’s crew.

“I drastically need the people out there beating the street every day that’s getting the work done. They are a vital part of our community and what’s going on,” he told The Times.

Boatright willing to collaborate

Blackshear Police Department Major Robby Boatright concedes the dissolving of partnerships between Blackshear Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office is partly his fault, but he isn’t against working to restore the relationship between the county’s two largest law enforcement agencies.

Boatright challenged Sheriff Ramsey Bennett for the seat earlier this year and narrowly lost in an August run off election. Retired state trooper Greg Stone and retired Dept. of Natural Resources agent Gary Simmons also ran against Bennett in the primary election.

“A lot of it has to do with me because I was the one to step up and run against him,” Boatright says. “If it was an outsider, nothing would have changed (with the ACE Unit) ... because it was me that ran against him and challenged him. That’s what’s caused the separation.”

Boatright, who still works as an investigator for the police department, suspects county residents are suffering more by the task force being dissolved than city residents. He bases that on the caseload split when he was still working with the ACE Unit prior to the election – 80 percent of the cases investigators worked were initiated in the county,  he says.

“It’s really hurting the community,” Boatright says. “We’re fine in Blackshear. The county is the one that’s suffering.”

Boatright has already announced his intentions to run for sheriff again in 2024. Still, he told The Times he’ll do what he can to repair relationships between the two agencies now.

“I would love to see it (restored collaboration) happen. As long as Ramsey Bennett would allow it I would be in agreeance (sic) with it, but I don’t see that happening,” Boatright says. “I do plan on, after the first of the year, see if I can meet with Ramsey and try to talk our way through the differences we have right now and hopefully move forward.”