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The new drug war

Policy shift puts JACNET funds on notice

— For investigators searching the powder-blue, 1980s-model Ford Mustang, the vehicle is typical of mobile meth labs.

In the car, concealed in Rubbermaid crates, are bottles of iodine, muriatic acid and Red Devil lye, a cracked 1,000-milliliter flask and Pyrex casserole dishes ' ingredients of a boxed methamphetamine lab. It's one of about a dozen that detectives with the Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team will seize this year.

They carry it all around with them until they do their next little cook, said JACNET Detective Gary Hatten. This is the most common (type of lab) in the valley.

Sheriff's deputies discovered the lab while taking an inventory of the vehicle, which was towed from Kirtland Road around — a.m. Monday. The driver had a suspended license and no insurance. When deputies realized what they had on their hands, they called JACNET's detectives ' the only investigators in the county certified to clean up the hazardous chemicals found in meth labs.

Seizing meth labs has been a critical component of JACNET's focus on taking out mid-level drug dealers in Jackson County. Under the new sheriff, that focus is shifting. But the change could come at the expense of federal funding and maintaining a link with the county's largest police agency.

My vision for JACNET is to return it to what the original intent was, said Sheriff Mike Winters.

Jackson County police need to target drugs at the street level, addressing county residents' concerns about the neighborhood drug house, Winters said. While campaigning, he frequently heard complaints from county residents and other police officers about JACNET's lack of interest in local drug dealing, Winters said.

If you live in a neighborhood and a drug house moves in next door, you want it worked, Winters said.

To target drugs at the community level, Winters said he plans to bring the county's smaller police agencies into the fold of JACNET. The officers would work part-time, possibly hand-in-hand with reserve officers for the sheriff's department. Former JACNET Detective Dewey Patten, now a sheriff's lieutenant, will command the task force. The current commander, Lt. Jim Anderson, retires from the department in May.

It will get back to a true team concept, Winters said. I'm trying to come up with a solution that serves everybody equally.

JACNET once was an all-purpose task force that divided its efforts between street-level drug busts and long-term investigations, said Mike Sweeny former JACNET commander and now Central Point's police chief. Sweeny said he withdrew as a full-time detective from JACNET in 2001 because it was focusing solely on high-level narcotics trafficking so the agency could get federal funding.

The office of National Drug Control Policy in 1999 designated Jackson County a high-intensity drug trafficking area (HIDTA). With its position along Interstate 5, Jackson County is a key waypoint for drug distribution up and down the West Coast, said Chuck Karl, director of Oregon's HIDTA program. Clackamas, Deschutes, Douglas, Marion, Multnomah and Washington counties also have HIDTA status.

JACNET, the local office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Medford's Gang and Street Drugs unit (GSD) make up the county's HIDTA task force. GSD works short-term, street-level cases while DEA concentrates on long-term cases that can be prosecuted in federal court. With its focus on mid-level trafficking, JACNET often channels information gleaned from drug users to arrest the high-level dealers.

Jackson County gets &

36;346,000 annually in HIDTA money. Most pays for an attorney who prosecutes drug cases both on the state and federal level.

Winters said he hopes to meet federal goals for narcotics enforcement even while changing the focus of JACNET. Jackson County's HIDTA task force has consistently exceeded its expected output, but their goals would be difficult to meet without JACNET targeting mid-level drug trafficking, Karl said.

JACNET's commander agreed.

The transition is going to be a real challenge for JACNET to meet all its goals and work at the street level, Anderson said. A lot of people expect us to be all things to all people.

Medford police officials have said they will not participate in JACNET if the county loses its HIDTA funding. Last year, HIDTA money paid overtime for the task force's investigators, leased vehicles and covered miscellaneous operating costs.

Faced with their own budget problems, Medford already plans to cut its participation in JACNET back to one detective in April. However, it's not out of the question that the police department may pull out of JACNET entirely, said Randy Schoen, Medford's deputy police chief.

Decreasing or eliminating its participation in JACNET will allow Medford to maintain the department's patrol levels and fully staff the GSD, which has functioned with two officers instead of the designated four throughout most of its four-year history. GSD will only become more necessary in Medford, Schoen said. The city's major crimes have decreased in recent years, but drug offenses have not, he said.

We want to make sure we maintain or increase our capability to respond at the neighborhood level, Schoen said.

In 1999 ' the first year of GSD's operation ' Medford Police Department's narcotics cases increased by more than 25 percent. Cases have increased slightly in each of the past three years from 943 in 2000 to 982 in 2002.

Joining in January 2002, GSD has been involved in HIDTA busts for just one year. But it's now a critical contributor if the drug task force is to meet its goals, particularly with JACNET's reduced staffing level, Anderson said. GSD made 123 drug arrests last year and seized approximately 1,900 grams of narcotics. JACNET made 110 arrests but seized more than 31,000 grams.

We focus more on the lower level because that's the one that all the neighbors call and complain about, said Medford police Sgt. Mark Bell, who oversees GSD. Yet information gathered by GSD officers serves as the stepping stone to lift larger cases up through JACNET and the DEA, he said.

If JACNET's focus changes to the extent that it would serve the same function as GSD, it would be in Medford's best interests to place an investigator with the DEA, police officials have said. That officer would continue working mid-level and long-term drug cases, Schoen said.

Our concern is how do we have the biggest impact on drugs in Medford, Schoen said.

But Medford's mindset threatens the team concept that has made drug enforcement in Jackson County so successful for more than a dozen years, said sheriff's Capt. Ed Mayer, a former JACNET commander.

That's the mentality we have to fight is 'our own,' Mayer said.

Drug dealers cross boundaries. What's Medford's problem is the county's problem. ... We have to approach it that way.

'Real challenges' face investigative efforts A staffing crunch and budget cuts have forced the county's narcotics cops to do more with less.

Down from nine officers who joined forces in 1989, the Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team now has five full-time investigators, including its commander, Lt. Jim Anderson.

The JACNET council faces some real challenges to try to staff this agency, Anderson said.

A charter member of JACNET, Ashland Police Department pulled out in the early 1990s. Central Point and Oregon State Police followed in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Central Point's school-resource officer now works with JACNET only when school is not in session.

Because of budget difficulties, OSP won't be coming back to JACNET, said OSP Lt. Kurt Barthel. Statewide, the agency will no longer participate in any local task forces, OSP officials have said.

JACNET's remaining agencies also have been plagued by staffing problems.

One of Medford's detectives was called to military duty, and the open position at JACNET was not filled for several years, Medford police officials said. The police department now plans to cut back to one detective in JACNET, in part to add investigators to its Gang Street Drugs unit.

The sheriff's department also doesn't have enough money in their &

36;20 million budget to assign more detectives to JACNET, said Sheriff Mike Winters.

The sheriff's department pays &

36;302,465 annually to maintain three JACNET investigators. Medford Police Department budgets approximately &

36;184,600 in salaries for three detectives at JACNET. Each agency also pays an assessment fee ' divided according to the number of cases in each jurisdiction ' that covers any unfunded items in JACNET's budget, Anderson said. Assessment fees have averaged &

36;33,000 over the past 6 years, he said.

If smaller police agencies, such as Eagle Point, Gold Hill, Phoenix, Talent and Shady Cove, joined JACNET at Winters' urging, they, too, would be responsible for their officers' salaries while working with the task force. However, they most likely wouldn't pay an assessment fee, Winters said.

I don't want to price them out of it, Winters said. I just really kind of need their manpower.

Sheriff?s Sgt. Matt Thomson tests a substance for drug content during a search of a car while Medford police Detective Gary Hatten looks on. Both work in the Jackson County Narcotics Enforcement Team (JACNET). Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell