District Drug Task Force coping with smaller budget
By TONI WALTHALL For the Sunday News EL DORADO – Just as municipalities and counties have learned to do, the 13 th Judicial District Drug Task Force is coping with a much tighter budget, according to Drug Task Force Director Gregg Parrish of Camden.
Though DTF officials are certain that federal funding will continue the f ight, strained DTF budgets are increasingly causing more of the burden of the fight against the growing drug problem to shift to the shoulders of local law enforcement agencies and funding sources.
Though it is one of the largest in the state –covering six counties the 13 th Judicial District DTF is down to two agents and working on $100,000 less than it did prior to 2001.
"I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, running around saying, ‘the sky is falling,’ but I tell law enforce ment daily that this problem is getting worse – not because they aren’t doing their job." Parrish said that the drug problem is constantly grow ing in all six counties – Calhoun, Cleveland, Columbia, Dallas, Ouachita and Union County, while available funds are decreasing.
He said the district has to plan for an uncertain future. "Someday, if there is no fed eral funding for the DTF, or if funding is drastically cut, I don’t know what the small communities will do. They are hurting as it is, but we work daily with them, as well, and will continue doing that."
Feeling the pinch Fordyce Police Chief Joe Pennington said Cleveland, Calhoun and Dallas County officials have been without a DTF agent since an agent assigned to the area resigned some time last year.
The three counties have considered appropriating funds to establish a tri-county drug division to focus on needs in the rural region. "It would be more effective, but we had no chance to supply an office," he said.
At this point, Pennington said the three counties are struggling with budget problems.
The smaller counties and cities have expressed frustration over a lack of DTF presence in their communities.
"We have a significant drug problem here and we work it as much as we can, but we need an agent not connected to the city or county. We don’t have the manpower or funds to provide that," said Pennington.
Extreme penalties for drug conviction within the 13 th Judicial District are getting the attention of drug peddlers, he said.
Dallas County Sheriff Donnie Ford said that in the past, speaking his mind about Dallas County’s need for a DTF agent has not been "profitable."
"I don’t think it’s been effective," he said. "We’ve had problems getting them to come up here to work. They always seem to be somewhere else working. There is always something more pressing."
Both Pennington and Ford acknowledge that the DTF is shorthanded, but say they have seen improvements in recent months and are hopeful that DTF-related efforts will continue in Dallas County.
Officials from all three counties expressed a desire to get a full-time agent assigned to drug-fighting efforts in their area.
"The future of our involvement in the eradication of drugs depends on grants that are coming up this summer," Parrish said.
Scraping the barrel Members of the DTF Board, which consists of sheriffs and police chiefs in the six counties in the district, have to sign the federal grant application for the DTF to be funded. The board hasn’t met in over a year.
Several of the law enforcement officials said they have refused to sign the grant in the past as a way to express frustration over different issues. All eventually signed after Prosecuting Attorney Jamie Pratt resolved the problems.
Magnolia Police Chief Robert Gorum, Columbia County Sheriff Calvin Knighton, Union County Sheriff Ken Jones, Ouachita County Sheriff Paul Lucas and Interim Camden Police Chief Scott Rosson, Cleveland County Sheriff Joe Paul King spoke in support of the DTF, sharing mostly favorable opinions of its effectiveness.
According to Gorum, when the DTF was formed in the mid-1980s, the working agreement between all agencies was a good one. All money and assets seized from drug-fighting operations within the district – no matter which law enforcement agency did the work –went back into the DTF to keep it functioning.
Gorum said that some local agencies began requesting a cut of the seized profits for their departments. "It should go back the way it was, so they have the money they need to go back into fighting the drugs," he said. "Everyone started wanting a piece of the pie and all they have done is hurt the task force."
Individual law enforcement agencies agreed at one point to contribute a paid employee to help with DTF duties in each county, Gorum said.
"Some of the counties had problems and stopped contributing to support their person and DTF had to start footing the bill," he said.
Grant money was originally supposed to be used strictly for administrative services. It’s just deteriorated from there," he said. "Everything should go back into fighting drugs, or we all lose."
According to Gorum, if the process reverted "back to the old way, the DTF would be financially sound" enough to establish DTF officers in all areas of the district.
"There was a lot more drug forfeiture money directly invested back into the operations of the DTF," Parrish said. "Local (city and county) budgets have been cut as well, so those law enforcement agencies have to go looking for moneys the same as we do. It’s not getting easier."
"I hope the government will remember the reason why task forces were formed – primarily for rural America," said Parrish. "Somehow we’ve lost sight of that. Our drug problem may not seem as big as, say, in Pulaski County, where it’s not uncommon for a trucker to get stopped carrying drugs. But when it occurs in rural Arkansas, the problem is more substantial, because there is a lack of money and manpower to investigate it and follow the path of the drugs to stop it. The problem in rural Arkansas is as real as any major city and our people suffer because of it."
The slow-moving wheels of justice Rosson said the DTF has "done a lot of good work" in Camden and Ouachita County," in spite of some minor clashes in the past.
Rosson, along with El Dorado Police Chief Ricky Roberts, acknowledged the frustrations that come with the seemingly-snailpaced litigation process that follows drug arrests.
"Sometimes we get frustrated, but there is nothing quick about working in narcotics," Rosson said. "But for the most part they build solid cases and Gregg Parrish does a good job prosecuting them."
In 2005, EPD’s narcotics division made 150 arrests, executed 18 search warrants, which resulted in seizures exceeding $140,000.
EPD narcotics officers also seized over 10 pounds of marijuana, five pounds each of powder cocaine and crack cocaine and three pounds of crystal methamphetamine, which had a combined value in excess of $710,000, according to Roberts. About a dozen seized vehicles take up space in city-owned parking lots, waiting for action from the prosecuting attorney’s office.
"The wheels of justice are just not turning fast enough for us," Roberts said. "That’s why we had to go to our city council to ask that they budget positions so we could continue our fight in El Dorado, independent of the DTF." Roberts said attempts to communicate with DTF officials have been ignored.
"I’ve asked for meetings, sent letters asking about specific cases, trying to find out some conclusion to understand the situation to no avail," he said. "I don’t know if it is just with our agency or if other agencies are having the same problem."
Roberts praised the work of the city’s narcotics officers and prosecution efforts of Union County prosecutors.
Taking it on themselves "The hard work is showing. We have life sentences being handed out. When we do have money to operate off of, we see results, but we could do more with more money," Roberts said, expressing gratitude for an El Dorado City Council committed to saving its communities.
Municipality- or county-funded efforts are an unfortunate necessity that shows no immediate sign of changing, Parrish said.
He applauded efforts of the Union County law enforcement agencies, who have established drug divisions in their departments independent of the DTF.
"We are very fortunate the El Dorado Police Department and Union County Sheriff’s Office have the drug agents they have. They’re fine agencies both of them," Parrish said. Cities and counties that can fund their own drug agents frees DTF agents to work in other areas, according to Parrish.
"El Dorado and Union County efforts have been a tremendous asset and just look at the results," said Parrish It’s safe to say, according to Parrish, that if local communities want to fight the threat of drugs, they will have to find a way to fund narcotics units within their jurisdiction.
"If they want to continue working on the drug problem, they need to continue making that an important part of their yearly budget," he said. The final verdict Expressing concern that there appears to be a lack of fear among drug offenders, Parrish sees hope in recent results in Union County.
"What juries have done in El Dorado has gotten some attention," he said. "And don’t think the defendants aren’t noticing the kind of sentences juries are handing out."
Parrish was referring to the 10 drug-related, jury trials in Union County since March 2005 that resulted in 10 convictions and nine prison sentences ranging from 20 years for possession with intent to distribute charges to 180 years and a life sentence for one habitual drug offender.
In one case, the jury convicted a man on drug charges, but deliberations locked up during the sentencing phase, resulting in a hung jury after the 12 peers couldn’t accede whether the charges warranted a 40-year or a 100-year sentence.
In many cases, drug-related convictions have carried higher penalties than convictions of violent crimes, including murder.
"Citizens are tired of drugs," said Deputy Prosecutor for Union County Caren Harp. "People are sick of it and want to take their commu nities back. Just look at the sen tences. Offenders who go in front of these juries are in serious trouble." According to Parrish, Union County agencies filed 800 criminal felony cases with the prosecutor’s office. Camden had 300-plus in 2005, but Parrish expects those figures to be closer to 400 in 2006.
Dallas County filed 100 cases and Calhoun County had about 50.
"Those numbers are continuously going up and I’m convinced that a majority of that yearly increase is due to drug use, consumption and drug sales," said Parrish.
The high price of drugs and crime Law enforcement officials know all too well the lengths drug users will go to get money to support their deadly habit.
According to law enforcement officials, Ouachita County is working with cases where people have cut down live utility poles to steal copper cables. "They burn the rubber sheathing off and sell the copper to get money for drugs," said Parrish. "That as a whole affects everyone. Utility com panies to have replace that and the costs are shared by anyone who uses electricity."
Prosecutors say that the number of crimes within the district have steadily increased in correlation with the growth in drugs.
Parrish expects that 60-70 percent of non-violent crimes - hot checks, theft of properties, forgeries, fraud –have drug usage or a drug purchase involved in some form or fashion.
"The community is tired, as evi denced by the high conviction rate and extensive sentencing for drug dealers," he said.
"People see crime every day and get desensitized to crime," said Parrish. "They hold their shock, even though it offends them, but it doesn’t affect their personal life. The drug problem and the crimes that feed it, does affect their life."
According to Parrish, anyone who has seen the effects of a crack house on an infant child will not soon for get.
"The filth, the roaches, the rotten food, the neglected, hungry children and $5,000 laying in the next room," said Parrish. "Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t see that, but it is truly disturbing to see the ramifications drugs have on the innocent people who have no control. It’s a horrific mental picture that officers have to carry out of there."