PORT ALLEN — Maj. Zack Simmers used to workout far more frequently in high school and college but slacked off in his adult years.
But today, the 31-year-old chief of the West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office’s Narcotics Division exercises daily — and for free — in a facility paid for through the work Simmers and his colleagues on the force do every day to get illegal drugs off the street.
“Doing this job, most of the time we interact with people who don’t want to hurt us. But sometimes they do,” Simmers said. “So we need to be physically fit to be prepared for that day. And you can’t do that sitting on the sofa eating doughnuts all day.”
Last year, Sheriff Mike Cazes used approximately $150,000 of revenue his office generated in asset forfeiture funds from drug arrests to build a Fitness Wellness Center.
The facility, which sits adjacent to the parish prison on Northwest Drive in Port Allen, is a brick and metal structure filled with all the equipment and amenities you’d expect to find at any health club but also provides additional training space for the Sheriff’s Office.
“We really needed a place to do training,” said Col. Richie Johnson, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office. “And then we started the wellness incentive program with our health insurance, so the sheriff thought he’d kill two birds with one stone by building it.”
Johnson said the Sheriff’s Office primarily uses the forfeiture funds from drug arrests to fund its narcotics operation — that’s money generated through the sale of things like homes, boats and/or vehicles deputies seize from drug dealers after they’ve been arrested.
“It could be anything that was used to traffic drugs or anything we can prove was purchased with drug money,” Johnson said.
According to their records, the West Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office generated $163,423 in asset forfeiture funds in 2015. In 2014 and 2013, $98,680 and $310,471, respectively, in forfeiture funds were deposited into the sheriff’s coffers.
Statistics from the Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Division state that between Jan. 1, 2014, and Dec. 31, 2015, deputies made 535 drug-related arrests stemming from more than 150 investigations.
During that same time period, the Narcotics Division reports that it seized approximately 367.38 pounds of marijuana, 25.52 pounds of cocaine and 4.52 pounds of methamphetamine.
State law caps the portion of funds local sheriffs’ offices can receive from drug-related forfeitures at 60 percent and mandates those funds be used in drug law enforcement, including, but not limited to, any reward programs established by a law enforcement agency.
Agencies must share the remaining portions of forfeiture revenues with local district attorneys’ offices and the criminal court funds in their parishes.
“We let drug dealers help pay for us to catch more drug dealers,” Johnson said.
The sheriff reduced the costs associated with the construction of the Fitness Wellness Center through the use of inmate labor and by purchasing used exercise equipment from a health club that went out of business.
The only part of the project that was outsourced was the construction of the building’s frame, Johnson said.
“It’s pretty nice,” he said.
And since it opened late last year, Johnson said, use of the facility is steadily increasing.
Simmers says he and about six others in his unit usually work out together in the mornings before shifts. Being able to do so, he says, further strengthens their camaraderie and provides a common ground they can all meet on.
The facility has also helped a lot of deputies lose a few pounds.
“It’s just a lot more convenient to have it right here where we live and work,” he said. “We push each other. And now there’s no excuses not to work out if we got our own facility.”
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