MARIETTA — “The train is on the tracks,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds said Friday, highlighting what steps the agency is taking to ensure the state’s security.
The former Cobb District Attorney spoke at a meeting of the Cobb Republican Women’s Club, promising attendees his agency would do everything in its power to protect the state and its residents from issues including gang activity, human trafficking and vaping.
Those three issues fit into the responsibilities of the three main divisions of the about 1,000 workers at the GBI, he said: investigations, forensic testing and the Georgia Crime Information Center.
On vaping, Reynolds said GBI testing often reveals more substances lurk in the devices than users sometimes realize. He said the agency has discovered high-concentrations of THC and even fentanyl in vaping devices and electronic cigarettes.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioid drugs are responsible for thousands of overdose deaths each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC reports that overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone increased nearly 47% from 2016 to 2017. The data shows 28,400 people died from overdoses involving synthetic opioids other than methadone in 2017.
Reynolds also cited the recent deaths across the country linked to vaping, which have been reported by state and federal health officials.
“Please, if you have teenage children, please, please teach that and preach that to them — that these are dangerous instruments,” he said.
Reynolds also told attendees that the GBI is working hand-in-hand with the governor’s office to prioritize the fight against gangs and human traffickers, which he said often intersect.
Citing a 2018 study conducted by the Georgia Gang Investigators Association, Reynolds said there were more than 71,000 “validated gang members” in the state last year. Though he said the problem reaches all corners of the state, he said FBI numbers show, 35,000-40,000 of those gang members are in the metro Atlanta area.
“We’ve just set up, for the first time ever, a statewide gang task force. It’s up and it’s running through the GBI, and we’re very excited about that,” Reynolds said. “As we grow this task force, we’ll be reaching out to local partners and working with them to ... get them to join with us in this battle.”
The director said many gang members tend to be responsible for human trafficking operations in Georgia, and as many as 85% of the human trafficking cases on the West Coast may have a connection to gangs.
He also said gang members have influence in schools across the state.
But, Reynolds said, Gov. Brian Kemp is “all in” on the issues, and is pushing for legislation to address them.
“I’m going to do everything humanly possible to make sure that you’re safe, your children are safe, your grandchildren are safe. We’re going to stop gangs in the state. I promise you, we’re going to do that,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds also discussed GBI’s creation of a cyber crime task force and Cobb County’s history of addressing human trafficking at local hotels.
Sheriff Neil Warren, who attended the event, said the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office has always had a “great partnership” with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and with Reynolds. That, Warren said, will continue.
Cobb school board Chairman David Chastain was also in attendance.
On the issues of vaping and gang influence in Cobb schools, Chastain said the district has policies and procedures to protect students from both.
District policy does not allow students to vape on campus or bring the materials onto school property at any time, Chastain said.
“If it happens, there’s policy to deal with it like we would regular smoking,” he said.
And while he hasn’t had anyone come to him directly with concerns about gang activity, the school district police department is connected to the county’s and will bring in a gang expert as needed to address any issues or investigate.
“I don’t think it’s so much students that are the gang members, so much as it is people from the outside trying to influence them,” Chastain said.
Also an issue in some cases, he said, is that students will post pictures on social media, showing gang signs without thinking about what they’re doing or the consequences for those actions.
One solution to these issues, as often is the case, is education, Chastain said.