Pubdate: Mon, 04 Feb 2008
Source: Helena Independent Record (MT)
Copyright: 2008 Helena Independent Record
Author: Angela Brandt


If the Missouri River Drug Task Force loses the majority of its 
funding, which is on the table, the communities the unit serves will 
not only see a rise in drug use but also general crime, according to officials.

Task force detectives were instrumental in solving the last five 
homicides in Helena, all of which were drug-related. They used 
networks of informants to gather incriminating information on the 
murders. Investigators say they also spend many hours a week on 
assaults, burglaries and other drug-related crimes.

The task force serves Helena, Lewis and Clark County and other 
surrounding communities.

The task force, mainly funded by federal grant money, faces a cut of 
67 percent for the next year, as do the rest of the nation's 
multijurisdictional drug task forces.

President George Bush signed an omnibus appropriations bill in 
December drastically slashing funding to the Byrne Justice Assistance 
Grant program, which provides the majority of the task force funding. 
The national program was cut from $520 million to $170 million by the 
bill passed by the U.S. House.

Last year, Montana received about $1.2 million from the program, of 
which 90 to 95 percent went to the seven drug task forces in the state.

If local law enforcement officials, who are scrambling to secure 
funding for the Missouri River Drug Task Force, are not successful in 
their mission, the force may be disbanded as soon as October.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Cheryl Liedle said her office would 
see a $176,731 cut in funding for its two deputies who are part of 
the task force, leaving her with $86,731 for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"When you put it in dollars and cents, it really hits you. We cannot 
survive with that type of cut," she said.

However, Liedle said the threat of slashed funding is an annual 
event. In the past, Montana's senators were able to secure monies at 
the last minute.

Last Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators, including two senior 
members of the appropriations committee, announced they would seek to 
$660 million, $140 million more than the original amount, in an 
emergency war-spending bill to be considered within the next few months.

"We need to be very persistent and keep fighting. This is a real 
serious issue," Liedle said. "This is an emergency."

When combined with local tax money and funds from forfeitures, her 
two deputies could maintain operations until about October, she said. 
While task force officials have discussed their options if the 
funding does not come through, no decisions have been made.

"We would all band together and try to figure it out," Liedle said.

The seven task forces in the state have 49 agents, a number that is 
projected to dwindle to 22 with the funding cut.

The Missouri River Drug Task Force has one state Division of Criminal 
Investigation agent and 7.5 grant-funded investigators, including one 
Helena police officer, and one supported by Lewis and Clark County.

Detectives also investigate drug possession, distribution, 
manufacturing and trafficking crimes in an area that covers Gallatin, 
Meagher, Park and Broadwater counties.

Dan O'Malley, a task-force detective and Lewis and Clark County 
sheriff's deputy, said the increase in drug activity he is already 
seeing is alarming, and it will only get worse if the funding does 
not come through.

About 90 percent of the cases O'Malley and his partners - fellow 
deputy Sam Mahlum and Helena officer Berkley Conrad - work are local 
busts, which often progress into the investigation into larger 
distribution rings in other states and internationally.

"So many of these cases are bigger than Montana," Liedle said.

The task force operates in conjunction with many federal agencies, 
including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and 
Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Last year, the drug task force garnered 165 felony distribution 
arrests, which accounted for 67 percent of all arrests for 
distribution in the state.

"That's what is phenomenal to me," said task force commander Lt. Dan 
Springer of the Gallatin County Sheriff's Department. "It's 
frustrating that when we are starting to see success is when the 
money goes away."

The task force seized or purchased drugs with a street value of more 
than $1 million last year, he said.

"To disband a drug task force that is successful the way ours has 
been would be a crime," Sheriff Liedle said.

As the funding decreases, Mahlum said, the drug dealers' fear of 
getting caught will decrease, leading to more narcotics on the streets.

The three detectives make about 15 drug purchases a week, he said.

"If you take us out of the picture, the police will have a much 
larger burden," said Mahlum, a task force detective of two years.

The task force's reach surpasses the jurisdiction in which they 
usually work. The detectives were the missing link in an officer 
shooting in Oroville, Calif. Detectives gathered leads from 
confidential sources, which led to the February 2007 Helena arrest of 
a man who shot a deputy in the leg with his own gun on Dec. 30, 2006.
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