Nearly 240,000 arrest warrants were unserved at the end of 2019, according to FBI data.
71,000 of them were felonies.
What does that mean for Central Georgia's two biggest counties?
How many people in Houston and Bibb have an outstanding warrant on them?
How quickly are those warrants being cleared?
We spent months battling to get the public records that answer those questions. The numbers might surprise you.
Chapter one: A look at Houston County
Normal days, if there are such a thing for the Houston County Sheriff's Office Warrant Division, start in a cramped squad room.
It's long before dawn and most of the lights in the sheriff's office are still off. Fluorescent bulbs illuminate about a dozen desks stacked high with case files.
Warrant squad deputies trickle in as a coffee maker hums in the background.
Soon Sergeant James Spivey gives the marching orders: they're hunting for a man accused of running from a traffic stop and leaving two young children alone in the car. A magistrate court judge signed warrants for his arrest. It's their job to serve them.
The deputies, all dressed in khaki tactical pants and bulletproof vests, load up. Two by two, they fill half a dozen dark pickup trucks in the.
The convoy rolls out one after the other, headed for an apartment complex where the suspect might be.
They're not serving a particularly serious warrant but the deputies aren't taking any chances.
Before Sergeant Spivey knocks on the door to the apartment, deputies cover the front and back of the building and others stack up near the door.
It might seem like overkill, but in their line of work, the biggest danger is the uncertainty.
"The people might react, and we have had them react in the past, very violently to something that's not huge," said Warrant Division Captain Mike Stokes. "They never know when they knock on that door."
Eventually, the door opens, but no luck. The man's not there.
They get a new address from the people who were there and move on.
The deputies go through the same thing two more times over the course of the morning. The suspect is never home, but every new address brings new leads.
It's a process Sergeant Spivey says is all too common.
"A lot of the people that we look for don't live like normal people as far as have things in their name, have property, a lot of times they're just staying with people, bumming rides from people, so it takes a lot to find people who live kind of underground," he said.
Eventually, the deputies break off into teams of two and start serving other warrants across the county.
Their squad is responsible for serving warrants from all four Houston County law enforcement agencies.
The work can be slow at times, but it adds up. In 2018, (the most recent year with available data), the warrant squad made more than 1,000 arrests. They did the same the year before.
"It is extremely important because we're getting these people off the streets who commit the crimes against the citizens of Houston County," said Captain Mike Stokes.
Chapter two: A look at Bibb County
Across the county line in Bibb County, Carrie Barber isn't thinking about arrest warrants.
"We really don't have a lot of crime in our neighborhood," she said.
She's an east Macon neighborhood watch president who says she's generally pleased with the number of deputies patrolling there.
But when we told her how many people had outstanding warrants in Bibb, she was surprised.
"It makes you think, it really does," she said. "I'm not aware of that, I'm sure a lot of people aren't aware of that."
Getting that figure and other details about warrants served and cleared in Bibb County was challenging.
Unlike numerous other Central Georgia law enforcement agencies, the Bibb County Sheriff's Office (BSO) didn't have the number of outstanding or recently served warrants readily available.
Eventually, after two months of discussions between the sheriff's office and 13WMAZ, the information was provided.
We asked Sheriff David Davis if his office was tracking that data before we asked about it.
"Well, we thought we were," he said. "Sometimes, when you get asked the right question, you find out some things that you might need to do better or some things that may not have been doing as they should've been."
Now, Davis says, his office is implementing procedures to better track warrant service data.
Eventually, 13WMAZ learned that around Christmastime 2019, roughly 3,000 people had at least one outstanding arrest warrant in Bibb County.
Sheriff David Davis pointed out that's about two percent of the total county population, but it's more than double the number for Houston County, where around the same time period, 1,209 people had at least one outstanding warrant.
"We have a different situation here in Bibb -- we've talked about the crime population, the situation bordering on crime, the blight, the economic disadvantages, the educational disadvantages," said Davis.
Many of those outstanding warrants are for misdemeanors, but more are not.
"About half of them, probably about 45% of them are misdemeanor warrants with about half of them, little over half being felony warrants," said Davis.
If Bibb has more people with outstanding warrants than Houston, are Bibb deputies also clearing more warrants?
According to numbers from both agencies for the year 2018 (the most recent year with full data sets from both agencies), the answer is mixed.
Chapter three: Warrants served vs. warrants cleared
One important point to keep in mind here: warrants served and warrants cleared are two different things.
The number of served warrants means the number of people arrested.
If somebody has multiple warrants when they're arrested, all of those warrants are considered cleared.
Warrants recalled by the courts also count toward the cleared tally.
So, hypothetically, if you arrest one person who has 12 warrants on them, the agency's served number will go up by one, but the cleared number goes up by 12.
In 2018, the Bibb County Sheriff's Office cleared more than 6,000 warrants, according to data provided by their public affairs office.
The Houston County warrant division alone cleared more than 11,000, according to Captain Mike Stokes, and he estimated patrol deputies cleared thousands more.
We brought those numbers to Sheriff Davis.
If there are more people with outstanding warrants in Bibb County, we asked, shouldn't the Bibb Sheriff's Office also be clearing more warrants?
"Well, probably could. Houston County is not 100 deputies short," Davis responded.
But in terms of raw warrants served, in other words, people arrested for outstanding warrants, the two agencies were roughly equal.
Davis noted that the Bibb Sheriff's Office Warrant Division is not structured the same as Houston County's.
In Bibb, he said, the division is much smaller and focuses largely on extraditions.
They also help serve warrants, but their main task is transporting Bibb suspects arrested in other jurisdictions around the country back to Bibb County.
He also made the case that there are four law enforcement agencies in Houston County, taking some of the day-to-day pressure off of the Houston County Sheriff's Office, unlike in Bibb where all of the law enforcement responsibilities fall solely on BSO.
And Davis says, even understaffed, his office is making progress.
"The serious warrants -- you know, those first time aggravated assault warrants, those murder warrants, those warrants like that -- they're going to get served we're going to put every resource available to that," he said.
The less-serious warrants also get their turn, but often only after chance encounters with patrol deputies, typically for more mundane infractions like a cracked tail light or speeding.
Davis said without more manpower, it's just not feasible to serve those warrants more aggressively.
Low starting pay compared to neighboring agencies, he says, makes it hard to hire and retain deputies. Now BSO is missing about 20 percent of their full manpower.
We asked Davis how much further BSO can go into the deputy deficit before it becomes an absolute crisis.
"Well, we're not quite there yet, but I can see it on the horizon," he responded.
"Where is the horizon?" we asked. "A month away, three months, a year?"
"I don't want to talk about that because if we talk about where we are as to crisis -- believe it or not, criminals watch the news," responded Davis.
Bibb County commissioners are currently in the process of requesting a local sales tax increase to send more funds to the sheriff's office. It must be approved by the Bibb County delegation at the state house before it can be implemented.
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