Drug task forces that lose money will lose teeth

Richard Lerner

The administration has opined that our country incarcerates too many people for nonviolent drug offenses. It recently decided to address that problem. However, the only people who are going to be happy about the solution are drug dealers.

In December, the federal government quietly cut almost half of the funding for Drug Enforcement Agency task forces across the country. Police chiefs across the country received a letter from the Department of Justice entitled “Deferral of Department of Justice Equitable Sharing Payments.” It explained that drug forfeiture funds, which local agencies receive for working with DEA, would be “deferred” until further notice. DOJ referred to this as a $1.2 billion “rescission” needed to balance its budget.

Here’s why this should concern you. Drug problems, especially high-level dealers, are a regional problem. In southeast Michigan, local police officers make up 47 percent of the total Detroit DEA task force staff. Nationally, the number is about 45 percent.

Until now, drug forfeiture funds — which are seized during arrest — have been shared with local communities (proportionally, based on the resources they provided). This helps support the personnel costs.

Local police department personnel are critical to the DEA law enforcement efforts.

■ Local police officers are deputized as federal agents, so they have authority across city borders and outside their jurisdiction.

■ Local police agencies sharing resources with drug task forces means better results and reduced crime in our region.

■ Local police agencies gain access to data and intelligence information necessary to take down drug cartels.

■ The DEA task force helps investigate drug dealers throughout the tri-county area and beyond.

■ Municipal police personnel receive valuable training and experience which they bring back to their departments.

■ Federal agents on the task force have equipment and police authority that local municipalities do not.

■ Local municipalities wouldn’t have the staff or resources to deal with high-level drug dealers by themselves.

DEA has expertise and resources that help solve major cases in the region including drug-related homicides.

The return of forfeiture funds to local communities is only fair since considerable local tax dollars fund the salaries of local officers participating in federal task forces.

My city, Farmington Hills, has a population of more than 80,000. Our police department has three full-time officers assigned to DEA task forces The Oakland County Sheriff, and most of our neighboring communities also have personnel assigned to the task forces.

Drug forfeiture funds allow us to purchase things like a Police K-9, NARCAN which has saved several heroin overdose victims, and bring educational to the community. We have purchased bullet-proof vests and even specially equipped police vehicles. This does more than offset the costs associated with devoting staff to federal task forces. It helps make our community safe. It reduces drug crimes, and other crime categories frequently linked to drug use.

If this money grab isn’t reversed, the effectiveness of drug investigations would diminish drastically. Cutting funding for half of the DEA personnel does not in any way reduce the drug problem. It only reduces the manpower available to enforce the existing laws and make arrests.

Drugs are a regional problem. Drug dealers are opportunistic predators. They don’t read demographics or care about issues of income or diversity. For the moment, most local municipalities with resources dedicated to local DEA Task Forces are staying put. However, if the equitable sharing of Drug Forfeiture Funds is not restored, it’s just a matter of time before cities and townships begin to pull back personnel. Balancing the DOJ budget on the backs of local municipalities who are fighting the war on drugs every day is not the answer.

Richard Lerner is a Farmington Hills City Council member.