State to leave drug task force |

State to leave drug task force

Adam Jensen

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Local law enforcement officials hope to maintain a more than two decades old drug task force at the South Shore following the elimination of state funding this summer.

The South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Enforcement Team will lose its task force commander position following the withdrawal of general fund money from the California Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement, said commander Jeff Catchings. The funding was cut from the state’s 2011/2012 budget, which was approved in June.

“By Dec. 31, this will no longer be a state-run narcotics unit,” Catchings said. “It changes everything.”

The team has included various member groups since its 1988 inception. The California Highway Patrol, El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office and South Lake Tahoe Police Department currently participate.

SLEDNET’s commander position is funded through the Department of Justice and is a key coordinator of local law enforcement that provides information-sharing critical to dismantling large-scale drug organizations, Catchings said.

“Without the Department of Justice guidance and oversight, you remove the big toe off the foot,” Catchings said.

“You don’t have that surgical tool to go out and remove things the way that we have.”

The task force has seized 1,672 marijuana plants, 559 pounds of marijuana, 776 grams of cocaine, 152 grams of methamphetamine and 211 grams of heroin so far this year, according to Catchings.

In addition to narcotics enforcement, SLEDNET also provides investigative resources like surveillance and assisting the FBI in violent crimes, Catchings said.

“Without that in place I’m afraid our drug abusers in the city could run amok,” said South Lake Tahoe police chief Brian Uhler.

Representatives from SLEDNET’s member agencies are expected to meet next week to discuss the future of the task force.

SLEDNET may be able to use asset forfeiture money to fund a leadership position, Uhler said.

The task force has been “very conservative” with the use of asset forfeiture money during the past year because of the expectation of cuts, Uhler said. The money on hand could potentially fund a commander position for a year or more, he added.

Whether use of the money to fund such a position can be done through SLEDNET’s executive board, or whether it needs to gain approval from the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors and the South Lake Tahoe City Council is unclear, Uhler said.

Grant funding may also be available to pay for a commander position through the first part of 2012, said El Dorado County Sheriff’s Lt. Les Lovell.

“We’re going to do everything we can to maintain a working investigative group here at the South Shore,” Lovell said.

Statewide, more than two-thirds of the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement’s 52 regional task forces are expected to close at the end of the month and approximately 200 special agent positions will be eliminated.

On Nov. 23, the Association of Special Agents filed suit in Sacramento County Superior against California Gov. Jerry Brown and Department of Finance Director Ana Matosantos to prevent the budget cuts.

The suit contends Brown and Matosantos breached their ministerial duty by eliminating general fund support for the Division of Law Enforcement and asks the court to compel the restoration of funding or allow Attorney General Kamala Harris to allocate other Department of Justice funds to the Division of Law Enforcement.

The suit alleges the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association’s support of 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman led to Brown demanding the cuts to the Division of Law Enforcement.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer called the allegation “baseless and without merit,” according to an article in the Sacramento Bee.

Governor Brown’s press office did not return a request for comment Thursday.

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