APD leaving Drug Task Force

Published 12:05 am Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Andalusia Police Department is leaving the 22nd Judicial Drug Task Force at the end of this month, but other law enforcement agencies say the change will have little effect on DTF activities.

APD Chief Wilbur Williams notified the DTF board of the decision by letter yesterday, stating that the level of task force service received in Andalusia did not match the level of funding expended by the city.

“For the past several years, I have carefully reviewed the statistics provided by the DTF so that I could analyze the activity…and ensure that they were performing at a level that was acceptable to me and the citizens of Andalusia,” Williams wrote.

He further stated that the majority of the cases investigated by the DTF were occurring outside of the incorporated limits in the county.

“I now realize that the citizens of Andalusia were not receiving a level of service through the DTF that is commensurate with the level of funding expended by the City of Andalusia for the DTF,” he wrote.

In an email to The Star-News, Williams stated that he was the only charter member of the board of directors with the DTF. He said for the last 12 years he has been “both a cheerleader and a critic” of the agency.

“(The APD) has dedicated thousands of dollars derived through multiple grant opportunities to enhance the abilities of the DTF to do their jobs better and more efficiently,” he wrote.

“As revenue sources continue to shrink and requests for services continue to increase, I must make my decisions based on the citizens that I am duty-bound to serve, providing them with the highest levels of service possible at the lowest expenditure levels possible.”

Williams assured the board that the APD would continue to cooperate with any agency “in our effort to inhibit the possession, distribution and use of illicit drugs in this community.”

In the email, Williams also stated the APD will assume “full control and responsibility for all drug investigations in our city” as the department “possesses the talent and resources to provide high-quality investigations relating to the illicit drug problems that we experience here in Andalusia.”

Statistics produced during the board meeting showed that, of the 479 cases DTF handled in 2011, 158 cases (33 percent ) were within Andalusia city limits. Of the remaining cases, 126 (26.3 percent) were in the county jurisdiction; 98 (20.45 percent) were in Opp; 70 (14.61 percent) were in Lockhart/Florala and 27 cases (5.63 percent) were unclassified.

“This will not affect the transactions in the Drug Task Force at all,” said District Attorney and DTF board member Walt Merrell of the APD’s decision. “The sheriff’s office has jurisdiction in every part of the county, including in the city limits of Andalusia.”

The DTF is currently comprised of five investigators, including two from the county sheriff’s office; two from the APD; and one from the Opp Police Department. The DTF employs a secretary, and has a prosecutor from the district attorney’s office. Grant funds pay for a portion of the officers’ salaries, and agencies without personnel representation pay a fee, typically $500, to the board for services.

When the Andalusia Police Department exits from the task force at the end of this month, Florala will begin sending an officer and Opp will begin sending two officers, Merrell said.

“The DTF will continue as they always have, working in every part of the county,” Merrell said. “In fact, the board agrees we’re excited about the introduction of a man from Florala, because it will add a new component to the task force that’s never been seen before. In many ways, the citizens of the county will be better served.”

Opp Police Chief Nicky Carnley said, “In this day and time, criminals – from dealers to property crimes – are highly mobile, moving in and out of jurisdictions, and it takes all agencies to work together to combat them.”

Formed in 2000, the DTF conducts undercover operations to arrest and prosecute drug offenders. The Covington County Commission acts as the fiscal agent for the task force, which is funded by a state grant requiring a 25 percent match from participating agencies, which include the Sheriff’s Office, the APD and the Opp, Florala, Lockhart, Gantt, Red Level and River Falls police departments.

Funding for the agency has steadily decreased throughout the years – $132,000 in 2011; $98,800 in 2012, and now $64,214 for 2013.

County administrator Brenda Petty, who serves as the grant administrator, said the agency must now not only determine who will fill the two spots left vacant by the APD, but also find ways to reduce expenses.

As a response, board members voted to either search for a new office location or negotiate with the current landlord to reduce the building rent, as well as inviting additional officers from Florala and Opp.