Pubdate: Mon, 12 Apr 2004
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2004 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Susan Schrock


Tarrant County's narcotics task force could lose millions in grant money 
and be forced to disband because its board unanimously rejected a state 
recommendation to merge with two task forces serving six nearby counties.

The proposed combined task force, which would stretch from Mansfield to the 
Red River, would pose too much of a liability risk for Tarrant County and 
could divert drug enforcement personnel from the metropolitan areas to 
rural communities, Metro Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit 
officials said.

The task force's nine-member board would prefer to form a partnership with 
Parker County. A decision from the governor's office isn't expected until 
next month.

If the request is denied, the 16-year-old Metro narcotics task force stands 
to lose nearly 75 percent of its $3.6 million budget. Without that support, 
the task force, which makes about 1,000 felony arrests and $25 million in 
seizures of illegal drugs a year, would probably fold, officials said.

Pat O'Burke, deputy commander of the Department of Public Safety's 
Narcotics Services, which oversees all task forces, said the merger was 
suggested because the counties have common investigative needs and drug 
problems that aren't exclusive to the major cities.

Counties have the right to chose not to merge. O'Burke said the governor's 
office will work with the task force to obtain other resources, such as 
community block grants, if their funding is lost.

Commander Bill Russell said losing the Metro task force would adversely 
affect drug enforcement in Tarrant County, where only three of the 37 
police departments -- Fort Worth, Arlington and North Richland Hills -- 
have their own narcotics units.

Last year, Tarrant County partnered with Ellis County because the state 
required task forces to have multicounty participation to receive federal 
grant funding. But that partnership was short-lived.

After Ellis County announced it would withdraw participation June 1, state 
officials suggested that Tarrant County merge with the Cross Timbers and 
North Central Texas narcotics task forces to maintain eligibility for grant 

The boards for the Cross Timbers task force, which serves Parker, Young, 
Jack and Palo Pinto counties, and the North Central Texas task force, which 
serves Denton and Grayson counties, have not met officially to discuss the 
state's proposal to consolidate, members said.

The merger is one of six the state is proposing as part of its strategy to 
create larger, more coordinated drug-enforcement task forces and use grant 
funding more effectively, O'Burke said.

In southeast Texas, the Jefferson County Narcotics Task Force has told the 
state that it wants to continue its partnership with the task force of 
nearby Hardin County. The state has proposed that Jefferson County 
consolidate its task force with those of Liberty and Chambers counties, 
which would stretch the task force from Beaumont to Cleveland.

"It's quite a distance. We just feel like this stretches us too far," said 
Ron Hobbs, Jefferson County Sheriff's Department deputy chief and task 
force commander. "We don't really feel it's in our interest to expand 
larger than we are. We feel like that our focus should be on our local 

Metro task force officials say that covering seven counties would bring far 
more complications than benefits.

Russell said there was talk about Tarrant County administering the grant 
money for the consolidated task forces, which would mean that it would be 
liable for any misdeeds, even those that occurred outside Tarrant.

"If the officers did something wrong, the county could be sued," said 
Russell, who referred to the 1999 Tulia drug bust. Officers with the 
Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force arrested 46 people, 39 
of whom were black, based on the word of a lone undercover agent in a 
now-discredited drug bust that civil rights groups said was racially motivated.

A federal lawsuit was brought against the 26 counties and three cities that 
were members of the task force, and it disbanded as part of a $5 million 
settlement reached last month.

O'Burke said that if liability is a concern, the Department of Public 
Safety could serve as the grantee agency for the task force, as it has 
agreed to do for a San Antonio-area narcotics task force.

Russell fears that the merger might shift focus from the metropolitan area 
to smaller communities that don't typically have as high a volume of 
illegal drug manufacturing and distribution.

"It could conceivably pull resources away from the citizens of Tarrant 
County in order to serve rural outlying areas," Russell said.

Task force officials said merging with Parker County makes sense because of 
its proximity to Fort Worth, where many of its drug cases originate.

"Our boundary between Fort Worth and Weatherford is shrinking. We're going 
to be next-door neighbors with the city of Fort Worth in the near future," 
said Weatherford Police Chief Jerry Blaisdell, who is also a Cross Timbers 
Drug Task Force board member.

Tim Curry, the Metro narcotics task force project director, said the board 
has been meeting with elected officials who represent North Texas to 
express their concerns about the merger and to find a way to keep the task 
force operating.

"The existing task force we're running, it's worked very well. It's been 
good for the county," Curry said. "We would like to come to some agreement 
with the Criminal Justice Division. We know what we can't live with."
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