Thursday, May 27, 2004

Star Telegram | 05/27/2004 | Tarrant County drug task force could lose its funding

Star Telegram | 05/27/2004 | Tarrant County drug task force could lose its funding

Posted on Thu, May. 27, 2004

Tarrant County drug task force could lose its funding

By Susan Schrock

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

ARLINGTON - The Tarrant County narcotics task force learned Wednesday that the $2.3 million federal grant that it had banked on for the next budget year won't be coming next week.

And that money may never come, depending on a decision the state is asking the task force's board to make.

The Metro Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, which takes $25 million a year in drugs off Tarrant County streets, has until Nov. 30 to decide whether to merge with the four-county Cross Timbers Narcotics Task Force, according to the state's Criminal Justice Division.

Single-county drug task forces, such as the one in Tarrant County, will not be funded under the state's new regional drug enforcement strategy, state officials said.

"This may very well be the demise of a very successful operation," said Tim Curry, the Metro narcotics task force project director. The task force, which was formed in 1988, makes about 1,000 felony arrests a year.

Without the federal money, which makes up more than 60 percent of the task force's $3.7 million annual budget, most Tarrant County cities would be without resources for undercover drug enforcement, task force Commander Bill Russell said. Only three of 37 Tarrant County cities -- Fort Worth, Arlington and North Richland Hills -- have narcotics units.

"Drugs are the source and the root cause of many kinds of crimes, from spousal abuse ... to murder. Those crimes will increase when the task force shuts down," Russell said.

Tarrant County and the Cross Timbers task force -- which consists of Palo Pinto, Parker, Jack, and Young counties -- have similar drug problems and sharing information and resources would be the best use of grant money, state officials said.

"Tarrant County needs leadership that will step forward and merge with Cross Timbers so they can better serve that area," said Robert Black, spokesman for the Governor's Office. "I understand they would like to be a stand-alone task force. That is not going to happen."

The task force board plans to meet next week to discuss the state's funding decision.

Tarrant County task force officials said they have been reluctant to merge with law-enforcement agencies in the four rural counties because they fear that their investigators could be pulled away from the metropolitan area to smaller communities. They also have concerns about hiring standards, training and experience of investigators from rural counties.

About 75 people, which includes investigators, lawyers, commanders and administrative staff, work in Tarrant County's task force. The Cross Timbers task force has fewer than 20 employees.

The board has not met with the Cross Timbers task force board or the state to discuss how the new, larger task force would work or be funded.

"It's difficult to make a decision when you don't know what the rules are going to be," Curry said. "We don't know any details. It's pretty much of a blind offer."

The state is allowing the task force to use any remaining drug seizure money to continue operating until the Nov. 30 deadline. Russell said the unit has $800,000 in its accounts, enough to last only a couple months.

Many cities have no narcotics officers, while others have one or two, and rely on the county task force to investigate drug trafficking and manufacturing in their communities.

Mansfield Police Chief Steve Noonkester, whose department pays for one task force officer, said he doesn't have the budget to create his own narcotics unit.

"If the task force went away, I can't do anything with one officer," said Noonkester, who estimated that it would take a couple hundred thousand dollars to create a narcotics unit. "It would certainly hurt and hurt very badly."

Tarrant County cities would not be without drug enforcement resources if the task force disbanded, said Pat O'Burke, deputy commander of the Department of Public Safety's Narcotics Services, which oversees all drug task forces in the state. O'Burke said the state would work with individual cities to obtain community block grants for drug enforcement.


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