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Tue, Sept. 17

Police agencies step up funding for drug enforcement task force

Prescott Police Department K9 Blue poses next to a large amount of marijuana and other contraband seized during a drug bust in early April 2019. As of July 1 2019, Blue and his handler, officer Shawn Bray, were assigned to assist Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking with drug interdiction and investigations. (Prescott Police Department/Courtesy, file)

Prescott Police Department K9 Blue poses next to a large amount of marijuana and other contraband seized during a drug bust in early April 2019. As of July 1 2019, Blue and his handler, officer Shawn Bray, were assigned to assist Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking with drug interdiction and investigations. (Prescott Police Department/Courtesy, file)

Faced with an imminent funding crisis, law enforcement members of Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking (PANT) agreed this last budget cycle to speak with their respective governing bodies about increasing financial support for the countywide multi-agency drug enforcement task force.

The result was overwhelmingly positive.

“Across the board, law enforcement, city and town councils and the board of supervisors; everybody just really stepped up,” said Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who sits on the PANT Advisory Board.

Future funding for PANT became a concern within the last year due to recent changes in law and criminal activity.

For about the last 20 years, the task force has been partially funded by seized money obtained through a state program called civil asset forfeiture. Commonly referred to as RICO — short for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — the program is designed to undercut the profits of wrongdoers by seizing assets believed to be tied to criminal activity, such as drugs, cash, vehicles and weapons.

Those assets are returned only if either the state chooses not to proceed with legal action against the alleged wrongdoer or if owners of the property prove their innocence.

Otherwise, the property is liquefied and used for law enforcement supplies and training in their efforts to specifically fight criminal organizations and/or aid victims. In Yavapai County, those forfeited funds are pooled into a single account, which Polk manages.

Once a month, Polk meets with all of the county’s law enforcement heads and they decide together to determine how that RICO money will be spent.

“Most of the money goes to support PANT,” Polk said. “We also try to make contributions to the (Yavapai) Family Advocacy Center.”

A substantial chunk of that RICO funding support for PANT was being used to cover the salary of the task force’s forfeiture investigator. But as of July 2018, a new federal law was enacted that prevents the use of RICO funds to cover replacement salaries for officers who are specifically assigned to asset forfeiture duties, therefore eliminating Yavapai County’s ability to cover the PANT investigator’s salary with RICO funds any longer.

On top of this, there’s been a significant decline in asset forfeitures – specifically cash – throughout the country.

“We don’t see the money being transported like it used to,” Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher said.

Illicit drug distributors have instead resorted to other means of transferring money, such as using digital currencies and pre-paid gift cards, which prevents law enforcement from confiscating the funds when they conduct drug busts, Mascher said.

Given this situation, Mascher was able to convince the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors this summer that PANT needs additional funding support from local governing bodies.

“They were very, very supportive,” Mascher said.

Not only did the board agree to incorporate into the county budget the salary costs of existing PANT positions within YCSO that were previously covered by RICO and grant funding, but they also agreed to fully fund two additional PANT sergeants and a detective.

Police Departments

Cottonwood Police Chief Steve Gesell emphasized that Yavapai County has one of the highest per capita overdose death rates in the state. That’s why, he said, PANT is “an invaluable collective resource that would not be feasible for agencies like ours and most all in Yavapai County. Drug enforcement requires special training and resources that exceed that of uniformed patrol officers.”

Likewise, Camp Verde Marshal Corey Rowley said PANT is a vital resocurce to the police agencies in the Verde Valley and throughout Yavapai County.

“We provide support by giving leads or requesting assistance on larger narcotics cases,” explained Rowley. “We support as a voting board member but lack resources to provide a deputy to the PANT team. We fully appreciate those departments who can afford to place officers on the PANT team.”

The Cottonwood Police Department provides office space for PANT officers in Eastern Yavapai County and currently contributes a supervisor and one detective, said Gesell. The City of Cottonwood pays the full salary for the detective assigned to PANT, while the sergeant’s salary and benefits are split evenly between PANT and the city.

Prescott area police departments took similar steps this last budget cycle to sure-up and expand their involvement in PANT.

“The way we look at it in the police department is that PANT is not a single organization, it’s a task force, and the mission that it fulfills to combat the illegal trafficking of narcotics is shared by all of its members,” Prescott Valley Interim Chief James Edelstein said. “We sustained the effort because we as an organization believe it is an important mission to sustain.”

Polk is confident that PANT’s continued existence and growth is far more sustainable now that the task force’s reliance on RICO funds has been greatly reduced.

“I feel pretty secure that we will continue to get that support from the different funding councils,” she said. “Every year we’ll have to do a budget, of course. If the revenue isn’t there, I guess we’re always at risk of having to cut positions, but we haven’t had to do that yet.”

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