Pubdate: Sun, 26 Feb 2006 Source: Lufkin Daily News (TX) Copyright: 2006 The Lufkin Daily News Contact: http://www.lufkindailynews.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/3616 Author: Emily Taravella, Cox East Texas Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/tulia.htm (Tulia, Texas) TASK FORCE DISBANDING ... WHAT'S NEXT? NACOGDOCHES -- With the closing of the Deep East Texas Narcotics Trafficking Task Force a few weeks away the question remains, "What does the future hold, with regard to drug enforcement in rural East Texas?" Ten agencies participate in the DETNTTF, including sheriff's offices in Nacogdoches, Angelina, Houston, Sabine and Tyler counties, and police departments in Nacogdoches, Diboll, Crockett, Hemphill and Woodville. County officials have set about the difficult task of dismantling the organization, turning over pending cases to individual jurisdictions and allocating assets. The Nacogdoches Police Department will increase its street crimes unit from two officers to four officers, to help compensate for the loss of the task force. Sheriff Thomas Kerss has said he doesn't know how the sheriff's department will cope with the loss. "We're doing good to cover what we've got, with the resources we have," he said, in a prior interview. Some rural counties have already disbanded their narcotics task forces. The North East Texas Narcotics Task Force, comprised of the Henderson and Carthage police departments and Rusk County and Panola County sheriff's departments, dissolved last year. HPD Assistant Chief Ronnie Walker said task force employees were basically split among the different participating agencies. "It was a pretty good chore, shutting it down," he said. "But so far, we've been successful. In some ways, we feel it benefitted us. We get to deal with our local people more, instead of targeting major drug dealers." Walker said HPD designated two positions for narcotics enforcement. One of those came from the patrol division, and the other is being funded with left-over task force funds. "Hopefully, we'll have some seizures to help pay for the new position, in the future," he said. (Agencies are allowed to seize money, vehicles or other items connected to illegal drug activity.) The Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force -- comprised of the Rusk and Palestine police departments, the Cherokee County, Anderson County and Houston County sheriff's departments, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and the Texas Inspector General's Office -- will try to hang on a little longer, according to Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell. "In rural areas, the biggest threat to citizens is the use and sale of illegal drugs," Campbell said. "By taking the Byrne grant funding, it severely cripples law enforcement." Congress cut the allocation Texas receives through the Edward Byrne Memorial grant by nearly a third. However, Campbell said the participating agencies in the DTNTF will hold on as long as they can. The Jacksonville Daily Progress reported Feb. 10 that Rusk city council members pledged $7,500 to the task force. The plan is to try to raise enough local support to keep the task force afloat until new funding is allocated by the state, according to the article. Whether the state will provide any future funding for task forces is debatable. Sen. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, said his office has been working closely with the governor's office. "We have encouraged them to continue looking for resources to assist the regional task forces," he said. "Unfortunately, with the significant reduction of federal funds through the Justice Assistant Grant program, many task forces have not been able to continue. Drug task forces have provided an outstanding service to our rural communities. Narcotics trafficking and production in rural Texas is a difficult problem to address, and I will continue to work with state agencies to find ways to better assist our local law enforcement in their efforts to combat the ever-present war on drugs." Rachael Novier, deputy press secretary for Gov. Rick Perry's office, said fighting drugs and the crime associated with drugs is one of the governor's highest priorities. She also said federal funding is the problem. "We had $33 million available for these types of law enforcement initiatives in 2004," she said. "In fiscal year 2006, it dropped to $14 million. That's a huge cut. What the governor is focused on, is getting these limited funds to local communities as quickly as possible to fund programs that have the biggest impact." Novier said the governor's office encourages local law enforcement to use creative, aggressive tactics and strategies to fight drugs in communities. "It's also important to know that the governor's efforts to keep drugs from crossing our porous border has a huge impact on the drug and crime problems throughout Texas and beyond, into the United States," she said. "If we can clamp down on the ability to operate there, it affects the impact of drug-related crime throughout Texas. We're doing the best we can with limited funds." With regard to federal funding cuts, U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Tyler, said it was regrettable that funds were reduced to help with other Homeland Security efforts. Amos Snead, Gohmert's communications director, said Gohmert knows how terribly important the local task forces have been, from Sabine County in the southeast to Upshur in the northwest. "Rep. Gohmert has contacted Gov. Perry to express his support for the local drug task force, but will also be pushing in Washington to get funds back in the budget to assist in such an important law enforcement effort," Snead said. "He is friends with many of our local sheriffs and understands their plight. Even without federal assistance, we understand that some local leaders will still be trying to implement a plan that will continue the fight against drugs." State Rep. Roy Blake, R-Nacogdoches, said he began working with County Judge Sue Kennedy and Kerss as soon as they heard about the funding cuts. "We had a meeting in Austin with the governor's office, and we tried to get a handle on exactly what was happening," he said. "The money is no longer there. The Deep East Texas Narcotics Task Force was a model task force, and it achieved exactly what the grant intended. So far, we haven't seen any replacement funds, so our challenge is to work with the resources we have to make sure law enforcement efforts continue. We'll try to find funds, in the future." Nacogdoches Safe and Drug Free is one of the agencies that has rallied hard, to try to save the task force. The agency will now focus on one of its primary functions -- which is drug prevention. Terrie Mayfield, community mobilization specialist for Nacogdoches Safe and Drug Free, said education programs are conducted in area elementary, middle and high schools. "We also have anti-drug clubs and programs," she said. "We have really active groups at Mike Moses and McMichael middle schools." Printed materials are provided to teach people about drugs and where to go for help, Mayfield said. "These resources are available to everyone in the community," she said. "Samaritan Counseling also does some education programs." Curriculum is actually taught in the elementary schools, Mayfield said. The materials come from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, in Lufkin. she said. Cushing and Central Heights have drug-free programs, and Mayfield said local law enforcement officers also help with the dissemination of information. "Anyone who wants help can come to our office for screening, if they think they're addicted to drugs," Mayfield said. "We can help people get the treatment they need." Narcotics task forces have had their share of critics. One agency that has been most outspoken is the American Civil Liberties Union. The Web site www.aclutx.org states that, "Scandals, mismanagement and skewed priorities at Texas drug task forces paid for by the federal Byrne grant program appear to finally be catching up to the rogue units. More have announced they'll close shop at the end of March when Gov. Rick Perry will reportedly shut off their funds. In a major shift, Texas' governor has chosen to spend that money on other critical programs like drug courts and border security." The Web site goes on to say, "The money teat has run dry, it seems, for Texas' Tulia-style drug task forces. That's a good thing. The money can be spent on many different types of programs, including drug courts, drug treatment programs or strengthening probation." Calls to the Houston and Austin offices of the ACLU were not returned Thursday or Friday.