Oregon State Police proposes cutting detectives from drug task forces

Article publisher: 
The Associated Press
Article date: 
Saturday, February 11, 2012
Article category: 
Oregon Issues
Article Body: 

Lawmen statewide fear a proposal to cut more than two dozen Oregon State Police detectives from regional drug task forces will pull desperately needed resources from their razor-thin budgets.

The stated mission of the drug task forces is to "disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations," but in small, rural areas, the detectives do much more.

State police detectives assigned to the regional teams have taken on roles on major crime teams, from the flashy casework on homicides to chasing fugitives -- and even the nitty-gritty writing of warrants.

The proposal, which quietly has been put forward as a cost-cutting measure by the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, is subject to approval by the committee and the full Legislature.

In Coos County, Sheriff Craig Zanni said his department has come to rely on the Oregon State Police detective assigned to the three-person South Coast Interagency Narcotics Team for help with major crimes, including homicides.

"(Cuts would) significantly impact what we're able to do," Zanni said, noting that he may have to disband the team.

Sheriff's offices in some smaller counties along the southern Oregon coast long ago lost the funding for detectives, requiring patrol officers to do follow-ups to crimes. As budgets continued to shrink, the detectives detailed to the state's 12 regional drug teams effectively became members of the police forces, Zanni said.

The proposal came from the Oregon State Police to the Legislative Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety, where co-chair Jackie Winters said the cuts are likely.

"I think it's very realistic when you look at the budget and where we are," Winters said.

More than 25 people will lose their jobs if the cuts come down, said state police union President Darrin Phillips. The 25 detectives would get a layoff notice and "bump" younger, cheaper patrol staffers from their jobs. To account for the higher detective salaries, the state police would have to lay off more patrol officers.

The math comes to about four patrol positions lost for every three detectives cut.

An alternate proposal in the same budget document would cut 10 detectives from the state police criminal division, but that proposal appears less likely.

The cuts were part of a series of proposals ordered by the governor's office that spell out how agencies would deal with various degrees of budget cuts, from a relatively mild 3.5 percent cut to a worst-case 10.5 percent cut.

The committee determined the cuts to state police drug detectives would be among the least-harmful to public safety proposed by the agency, Winters said.

"Will there be reductions in services? The answer is yes," said committee Co-chair Rep. Mary Nolan. "Some of the reductions in services will be very noticeable. But that is the case in every single public safety agency."

Nolan pointed out that the cuts would come while other services were maintained: Specifically, the state police will keep the same number of troopers on the road, and the state will provide money to maintain its sex offender registry.

But in places like rural Eastern Oregon, where the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team counts three state police detectives among its eight members, Pendleton police Lt. Bill Caldera said their loss would be hard to take.

"It would cut our resources almost in half," Caldera said. "It would have a detrimental effect (on) cases. We use them on major crimes, to write warrants -- they're not only task force detectives. They serve more than that."

That goes up the chain to the federal level, where an Oregon State Police detective works on the U.S. Marshals Task Force. Supervisory deputy Eric Wahlstrom said having a state police detective helps streamline federal police assistance to rural areas and coordinate the Marshals' efforts with other police agencies.

"The impact would be huge," Wahlstrom said. "He brings the cases to us and says, I've got a wanted sex offender, maybe a serious drug dealer, a person suspected of homicide, it could be case where they're assisting a rural county, and we'll help out."

Oregon State Police spokesman Gregg Hastings said the police were prepared for cuts of some nature.

"Some of the affected drug teams rely heavily on OSP participation, and in some cases supervision, resulting in local drug teams to decide if they can continue to investigate drug-related crimes," Hastings said in an email.

The funding cuts are another blow to the drug task forces, which will lose federal grant dollars at the end of September that paid for overtime and training.

"Budget constraints are impacting everybody ...They got us all," Caldera said. "It's definitely going to make an impact on how we do business."