Craig Police Chief: ACET essential for fighting local drug trade
February 14, 2012
“I don’t see how individually any of us could accomplish what the task force can. … A multi-agency task force breaks down jurisdictional boundaries. Officers are free to work wherever the investigation takes them, and if necessary, get additional support from those (partnering) agencies.”
— Walt Vanatta, Craig Police Department chief, about the importance of the All Crimes Enforcement Team
A complete picture of the All Crimes Enforcement Team's 2011 activity wasn't fully reflected in a year-end report, a task force board member said.
A Craig Daily Press editorial published Feb. 1 questioned the task force's effectiveness based on numbers provided in the 2011 report.
In response to the opinion piece, Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta provided the newspaper with a news release that included information he said gives perspective to the report written by ACET Commander Marvin Cameron.
"There are reasons for a perceived reduction in numbers," Vanatta said. "Most of them are budget driven."
Two funding streams — grants and asset forfeitures — have dwindled over the years, changing the way cooperating agencies approach funding ACET, according to the release.
"We, as a board, have recognized for the last couple of years that not only was grant funding drying up, but funds obtained from asset forfeiture have become nonexistent," Vanatta wrote in the release. "With that in mind, we have taken every step available to reduce operating costs. We have also recognized that if the task force is going to continue operations in the future, we are going to have to become self-funded and not rely on grants."
Operating as a self-funded agency comes with budget restrictions as well, especially in an economy where budget cuts have become commonplace.
Vanatta said budget cuts for all agencies participating in the task force last year, coupled with an overall lack of grant money, resulted in ACET having no money earmarked for overtime.
"The only overtime officers can work is whatever their home agency can afford or they can flex off," Vanatta wrote, adding that overtime is critical to ACET investigations. "Drug cases take hours to work, at all hours of the day and days of (the) week. It is not conducive to a (40-hour) schedule."
Manpower issues have had an effect on ACET as well, Vanatta said.
When local agencies assumed control of the task force from the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2006, there were six agents on the task force: one each from the Moffat and Routt county sheriff's offices, one each from Craig and Steamboat Springs police departments, and two outgoing DEA agents.
In 2007, the Routt County Sheriff's Office withdrew from the task force. Coupled with the loss of two DEA agents, only three members remained on the task force, according to the release.
"Officers have 2,080 hours of scheduled time in a year and … there just aren't enough hours to get all the work done," Vanatta said. Even when officers make an arrest, they have to take time off investigating other cases to appear in court, he added.
"If we had six people on the team again you would see much larger numbers, but we all know that isn't going to happen," the police chief said.
Turnover of task force personnel is another factor that determines how much the task force is able to accomplish.
Vanatta said when a task force member retires or takes a job elsewhere, it takes "a month or two" to choose and train a replacement as well as find someone to fill the new member's previous position.
"When you have a team of three people, missing one has a big effect," he said.
That's the case with the Routt County Sheriff's Office, which agreed to rejoin ACET last year but is still in the process of training personnel to provide a fourth task force member, according to the release.
Vanatta also said effects of the work done by the task force aren't always visible to the community, especially when considering how much it would cost individual communities to fight the illegal drug trade.
"For example, if ACET had not been available to deal with the meth lab in Hayden, it could have cost the town up to $50,000 (to close and dismantle)," he wrote.
Numbers aside, Vanatta said the task force is the most effective way for regions such as Northwest Colorado to overcome jurisdictional restrictions to combat the presence of illegal drugs and the crime that accompanies them.
"I don't see how individually any of us could accomplish what the task force can," Vanatta said. "… A multi-agency task force breaks down jurisdictional boundaries. Officers are free to work wherever the investigation takes them, and if necessary, get additional support from those (partnering) agencies.
"It also allows for continuity of prosecution. The conviction rate for those charged by the task force is almost 100 percent."
Given the task force's conviction rate along with the realization the war on drugs is never ending, Vanatta said ACET is indispensable.
"I feel it is essential we keep the task force in operation even if we have to fund the entire operation without grant funding," he said. "This unit is having a direct impact on improving the quality of life in the Yampa Valley.
"Without this coordinated effort, the drug and crime-related problems we are experiencing now will have the opportunity to grow pretty much unchecked in our communities."
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