Eastside Narcotics Task Force disbanding | Marijuana legalization, lack of funding posed problems

Mercer Island will continue to investigate drug crimes, but will not have a dedicated narcotics unit.

  • Thursday, February 18, 2016 2:49pm
  • News
The Eastside Narcotics Task Force recovered these items during a 2015 raid.

The Eastside Narcotics Task Force recovered these items during a 2015 raid.

By Allison DeAngelis

adeangelis@bellevuereporter.com

After 25 years of work combatting drug-related crimes, the Eastside Narcotics Task Force will be disbanding in June.

Over the last few decades, the Puget Sound area has experienced ongoing significant drug abuse crimes, stretching the resources of the individual police departments, the task force reported in documentation from 2005.

“The member agencies did an evaluation of the task force and its mission, and what we decided was that the task force had run its course and that due to a variety of challenges, it was time to sunset the task force and look at other options,” Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett told the Reporter.

The task force has been operating since 1981, and memorandums of understanding were officially signed in 1997. The King County Prosecutor’s Office joined the group in 1990, and the King County Sherrif’s Office followed suit in 2002 and the Washington State Patrol in 2010.

Prior to the formation of the task force, the various law enforcement agencies had worked independently. Working together allowed the departments to pool personnel, improve the utilization of funds, improve training, develop specialized expertise and more, according to the task force.

Collectively, they investigated drug running operations, money laundering cases and more. They seized $276,000 worth of meth in 2011 and five pounds of heroin and cocaine, guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition worth more than $400,000 in 2014. But, as marijuana was legalized in Washington and funding began to lessen, the task force faced serious challenges to its future.

“When the state law changed, it made us pause and take a look at our mission,” Mylett said. “When I arrived in Bellevue (in April 2015), the police chiefs were already discussing how marijuana laws were changing the whole drug trade landscape.”

Marijuana had been a large focus of their investigations prior to its legalization.

Notably, they broke up a nearly $5 million pot-growing operation near Tiger Mountain in 2009 and another $1 million pot-growing operation in Renton in 2010. That same year, a 4,000-plus-square-foot Bellevue home was found to be filled with more than 730 marijuana plants.

Their funding had also been shrinking over the last few years.

The dozen or so officers on the task force were funded through federal grants and taxpayers dollars. While those grants once brought in $360,000, the task force only received $122,000 this last year.

Initially, the task force made up for the gap in funding through the assests they seized from criminals. That largely dried up after marijuana became legal, Mylett said.

The task force’s termination does not indicate that drug usage and drug-related crimes on the Eastside are lessening, nor that various law enforcement agencies will stop investigating them, Mylett said.

The Eastside is on the verge of a heroin epidemic, various officials have reported.

The Bellevue Fire Department’s use of Narcan (Nalaxone), a drug to combat opiod overdoses, has been increasing over the last few years. Heroin has also become cheap and more easily acceptable, according to Norman Johnson, chief executive officer for Therapeutic Health Services.

“It’s definitely a major issue. But, we’re going to be focusing our resources on a local level,” he said.

That being said, there’s no doubt that the drug trade doesn’t stop at the borders of Bellevue, he added.

The Bellevue Police Department, which has contributed the most officers to the task force, will establish a narcotics unit comprising of their task force officers within the existing investigations unit.

Going forward, the various law enforcement agencies will continue to work together on an as-needed basis.

“The agencies in King County have very long, rich history of working well together. So, whenever we need help, it’s coming,” Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes said.

Mercer Island will continue to investigate drug crimes in their city, but will not have a dedicated narcotics unit.

It is unknown at this time what changes the Redmond and Kirkland police departments will be taking to replace the task force’s resources. Neither department responded to requests for comment.

The task force will formally end in early summer 2016.


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