Cuts could end drug task force

Friday, July 15, 2005

Bush has proposed cuts that put local drug enforcement units at risk.

Kevin Glaser knows he's fighting a battle that can't be won.

Every day Glaser and other police personnel struggle against a relentless enemy who won't stop until it gets what it wants -- methamphetamine. And when one meth maker or distributor is thrown behind bars, there's at least one other ready to take that one's place.

"All we can really do is try to keep our heads above water," said Glaser.

Without the drug task forces, treading water in the drug war could get even harder for law enforcement. The scenario could become a reality if federal funding is taken away from those agencies in the next fiscal year.

Glaser, a sergeant with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, is the administrator of the SEMO Drug Task Force. The task force is a group of law enforcement officers charged with stopping the drug trade in a 10-county area in Southeast Missouri.

Agencies like the SEMO task force are largely funded through the Byrne grant program, a federal program administered through states that helps local police agencies fight drugs.

The Bush administration has proposed cutting the funding for the grants completely in fiscal year 2006. If that happens, it could spell the end for many drug task forces, including Glaser's.

"Probably about 85 percent of our operating budget comes through that Byrne grant," said Glaser. "If we lose that Byrne grant funding, the task forces will shut down. There's no other mechanism to keep that funding going."

In fiscal year 2005, six hundred and thirty four million dollars went to the Byrne grant program to aid local police. The majority of that money must go to local police, while the rest can go to state agencies. Of that total, the SEMO Drug Task Force received over $200,000, while the Bootheel Drug Task Force, which handles Pemiscot and Dunklin counties, received over $140,000. Those funds require an agency match of 25 percent.

The cuts are nothing new -- last year the Byrne grant and the Local Law Enforcement Block Grants, which had received $500 million each per year before 2001, were combined and their budgets cut 12 percent. The administration uses many reasons to justify the cuts -- increased money for domestic security, increased money for the DEA to stop the flow of drugs from Mexican drug factories and the need to inject discipline into spending.

In Glaser's eyes, and the eyes of local law enforcement throughout the area, the drug task force is one of the best weapons against the popular drug.

Meth is cheap, easy to make and highly addictive, all of which make it a scourge for law enforcement. A recent survey of sheriffs in 45 states showed meth to be the self-reported No. 1 problem facing police nationwide.

Stories abound of meth users packing jails throughout the Midwest, where the drug has gained the strongest foothold since its origin decades ago with the biker gangs of California.

"I've visited a few jails in the south-central part of the state, and in every one of them almost every inmate was coming off meth," said U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson.

Which is why Emerson and her bi-partisan colleagues in the House of Representatives' "meth caucus" have fought hard for federal funds to combat the problem. Their latest battle was restoring 55 percent of the funding to the Byrne grant program.

A coalition of conservative and liberal groups has joined together to lobby for the cuts, with conservatives citing reasons similar to the Bush agenda and liberals claiming the drug task forces use illegal and abusive tactics to catch and prosecute offenders.

But conservative Missouri lawmakers like Emerson and U.S. Sens. Jim Talent and Kit Bond have fought against the cuts in the past and did so again this year. Citing Missouri's experience with the meth problem, each says the money is essential to public welfare in Missouri and across the United States.

Talent has said meth is worst drug he's encountered in his 20 years in public office, said Rich Chrismer, a Talent spokesperson. Chrismer said the senator calls the meth problem a No. 1 priority in Missouri.

Both Bond and Talent are fighting to restore full funding to the Byrne program, which now sits in a Senate subcommittee.

Missouri has consistently ranked at or near the top in meth lab discoveries compared to other states. In 2004, it led the nation with 2,786 and was the only state with over 2,000. The last year the state was under 2,000 incidents was in 2000, when there were only 889.

For many years, the problem was getting worse instead of better, said Glaser. When it was formed in 1990, the SEMO Drug Task Force hardly encountered any clandestine labs, but they started showing up in force around 1995.

"When we first encountered the labs, we didn't know what to do," said Glaser. "At that time we didn't have the equipment or the expertise to deal with them."

Since then, the task force has specialized in dealing with the expensive and time-consuming process of cleaning up a meth lab. They have the hazardous material suits, the breathing apparatus and the time and training to deal with the highly toxic leftovers that come from a process that uses such things as lithium batteries, anhydrous ammonia and anti-freeze to make a drug.

All are things rural police departments on the county level and the city level would be hard-strapped to afford.

Cape Girardeau County Sheriff John Jordan and Scott County Sheriff Rick Walter are both supporters of the drug task force model.

"It's still a very effective tool," said Jordan. "Any time you pool your resources and work together you're going to be more effective. They focus only on drugs and drug importation and manufacturing, while our officer may be called away to work a domestic dispute or something that requires immediate attention."

Glaser said the decrease from 2,860 lab incidents in Missouri in 2003 to the 2004 total of 2,788 is indicative of a trend away from local manufacturing to importation from large labs in California and Mexico.

New state legislation regulating the sale of pseudoephedrine-containing products (a key ingredient in meth) and similar federal legislation co-sponsored by both Emerson and Talent in their respective chambers might also help get rid of the clandestine labs.

But drug task forces are still critical in interdiction of shipments and in going undercover to break up drug rings, Glaser said.

With equipment like surveillance vans equipped with video technology and a schedule that can be totally devoted to drug investigation, Glaser's team is more effectively able to catch what he calls the "bad guys" and build a stronger case against them in court, he says.

The sheriffs agree.

"I have one officer dedicated for drugs, and that's it, and obviously that's nowhere near what I would need to take care of the drug problem in the county," said Walter.

In Glaser's mind, pushing to keep the task forces alive isn't just self-interest, it's common sense.

"I'm not just trying to keep my job," said Glaser. "I'll still have a job even if the task force goes away. I'm just looking at what is the best way to combat the problem."

And while the battle continues in Congress, Jordan remains optimistic that one of his key tools in the fight against drugs will still be there this time next year.

"At the end of the day, I do believe the funding will still be there for the rural drug task forces," he said. "I just can't see it being completely cut."

If the funding goes away, it may be a little harder for law enforcement to tread water in a new drug war.

"Meth is going to be here for a long time," Glaser said. "We just have to keep fighting."

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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