Monday, October 23, 2000

Warren lagging in drug war

Tips go unanswered as county curbs funds

By Sheila McLaughlin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Ohio's second-fastest-growing county could quickly become a drug dealer's paradise.

        Lately, at least 20 drug tips from police, residents and school officials go unanswered each week at the Warren County Drug Task Force.

        And compared with the efforts of similar agencies in counties its size, Warren County's drug-busting squad is taking only a fraction of drugs off the streets, its director, John Burke, said.

        The problem, he said, is lack of manpower.

        In a nutshell, he is a one-man show, assisted by officers from seven other police agencies who work on call to nab mid- and high-level dope dealers. Since June, the sheriff's office has lent the task force one deputy to help in drug investigations, but Mr. Burke doesn't expect that arrangement to last.

        “We're not doing the job we could do because we don't have enough personnel,” Mr. Burke said. “We're swamped here. We can't possibly get to anywhere near the number of complaints we get.”

        Strapped for cash because the availability of grant money is next to nil, Mr. Burke has asked county commissioners for $383,570 to beef up his squad.

        He wants to spend $212,010 to hire three agents and a secretary.

        He wants to start two programs that would focus on the illegal trade in prescription drugs and attack the stream of drugs coming through the county on two interstates.

        Nearly $53,000 of the money would be used to buy office equipment and move out of the one-room operation in the already cramped quarters at the sheriff's office.

        The proposal marks a first for the 7-year-old task force, which operates on a $58,000 federal grant and $40,000 in contributions from participating police agencies and drug forfeitures. The grant pays for Mr. Burke's salary and benefits.

        Mr. Burke meets with commissioners Oct. 31 to plead his case. But commissioners, who have $120 million in the bank, say they aren't ready to buy the package.

        Commissioner Mike Kilburn said he doesn't think the county needs a separate drug task force.

        “We have a sheriff's office that is big enough, knowledgeable enough and well-funded enough to do their thing with drug problems in Warren County,” Mr. Kilburn said, adding that he thinks drug task forces are ineffective because judges are too lenient in sentencing offenders.

        Pat South, president of the Board of Commissioners, said she would give serious consideration to funding one full-time agent for the task force.

        But no more than that.

        “There is no way we are going to more than double the size of his budget and staffing for the next fiscal year. The full request would not even be a consideration,” she said.

        Mrs. South said she wasn't concerned that the task force was unable to investigate more than 1,000 tips a year.

        “If the county did not have a task force agency, those people would call their local police departments or the sheriff's office,” she said. “I look at the drug task force agency as a way to augment and raise the level of effectiveness of duties that have been ongoing in this county for a number of years.”

        Mr. Burke said he could use even more money from the commissioners, but he's trying to be reasonable.

        “Three investigators is not all I need. I need more than that,” he said.

        He pointed to drug operations in rapidly developing Clermont and Greene counties, which employ up to six full-time drug agents.

        “We're in the same boat or worse off than they are and it's going to get worse as it goes along,” Mr. Burke said.

More grant money unlikely
               State officials say Warren County isn't likely to receive more grant money anytime soon.

        Clermont and Greene counties get more than twice as much funding from a federal program administered through the Ohio governor's Office of Criminal Justice Services.

        That's because those counties established their task forces and applied for money years before Warren County created its agency.

        The pool of federal money has changed little over the years and must be shared by 33 task forces in Ohio. The funding each agency receives annually is based on what it applied for initially. In 1999, that pool consisted of $3.74 million.

        According to one state official, there's not much hope that more federal money is on its way.

        At a time when 80 percent to 90 percent of crimes are thought to be drug- or alcohol-related, greater emphasis is being put on prevention and treatment programs to attack the nation's drug problem, he said.

        “Our money comes from Washington and there are competing forces out there,” said Tyree Broomfield, a law enforcement coordinator with Criminal Justice Services who works with the drug task forces. “Treatment has been receiving more money and so has prevention.

        “There is no way the drug interdiction effort can be fully supported with the amount of money we have,” he said.

Money, agents bring success
               Typically, agencies with more investigators and larger budgets are more effective, Mr. Broomfield said. That effectiveness is gauged by the street value of drugs seized.

        Figures in Clermont and Greene counties seem to prove that point.

        Both are close in population to Warren County's 153,000 residents, and each receives some funding from their commissioners.

        Greene County, with a staff of five and a budget of nearly $200,000, took $2.08 million in marijuana and cocaine off the streets in the first eight months of this year.

        Clermont, with a staff of seven officers and a budget of about $266,000, seized $1.2 million in marijuana and cocaine during the same months.

        Warren took in $282,000 in street drugs.

        Since October 1999, when Mr. Burke was hired to lead the task force, the agency has been responsible for the indictment of 45 to 50 people, he said.

        “I'm happy with what we've been doing with limited resources,” Mr. Burke said. “But it's not near what can be done.”


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