The over Byrne cuts

Drug enforcers predict decreased Byrne funding will turn Operation Byrne Blitz into Operation Byrne Bust


     Ever since the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne-JAG) program originated 20 years ago, multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement task forces have utilized the funds to wage war on the nation's drug trade. But "Operation Byrne Blitz" as it's been called may soon be more aptly termed "Operation Byrne Bust," if the Bush Administration succeeds in gutting the Byrne-JAG program in 2009.

     The California Institute reports the Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 Department of Justice budget proposal requests $404 million for law enforcement programs as opposed to the $1.76 billion allotment in FY 2008. It recommends consolidating more than 70 state and local law enforcement funding programs into four grant offerings, and in this move, Byrne-JAG winds up the big loser. The program received $173 million for formula grants and $187 million for discretionary grants in 2008; $160 million more than what's proposed for 2009.

     Communities across the country are already feeling the pinch of diminished funding. Tony Wheatley, who heads the Mid-Missouri Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force, says his organization once employed 11 individuals to oversee 2,500 miles; now just six officers cover 4,000 miles because of federal funding limits. Today, Byrne-JAG subsidizes three of its members, while state funding absorbs the cost of two officers, and Cooper County pays the remaining investigator's salary.

     "We are stretched pretty thin," Wheatley laments. "If we lose the Byrne grant, we'll shut down. There's no way we can operate without it."

     Iowa also faces disastrous cutbacks. Gary Kendall, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy, anticipates a $3 million shortfall in 2009. These funds, as well as a 25-percent salary match by counties in the program, completely finance the state's multi-jurisdictional drug enforcement efforts. Federal dollars pick up 75 percent of the tab for 59 employees, 39 of whom may be sent to the unemployment line if the proposed budget passes. The Iowa General Assembly is currently considering beefing up law enforcement subsidies, but Kendall worries that "the state cannot make up the difference in just one year."

     Iowa and Missouri are not alone in sounding this alarm. A few weeks ago, law enforcement top dogs from 45 states lobbied Congress to resurrect Byrne-JAG monies. If their efforts are successful, Congress may restore some funding in its Supplemental Funding bill. If unsuccessful, law enforcement's options are limited, and authorities across the country predict these cuts will decimate drug enforcement efforts and impair public safety across the United States.

     "It's the equivalent of having an infection and running out of antibiotics," says Darin Logue, member of the Mid-Missouri Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force. "It's just going to keep coming back, and it's going to get worse and worse."

Philosophical differences

     With the success of these programs, the question arises as to why underfunding prevails. Kendall attributes it to a philosophical difference, where the U.S. government remains skeptical about spending federal money on what lawmakers view as a "local" affliction.

     However, Kendall and others in drug enforcement do not see it that way. In Iowa — as is the case in most states — 95 percent of the drugs come from Mexico or the southwestern United States. "If that doesn't make it a national problem, I don't know what does," Kendall says. "There's obviously a difference of opinion here."

     John Groves, chief of reserve detectives for the Pulaski County (Missouri) Sheriff's Department, blames funding scarcity on a faulted system that measures success through the reduction of a particular drug's sales. "We take the narcotics 'flavor of the day' and go after it," says the 38-year law enforcement veteran. "In the '80s and '90s, it was cocaine, prior to that it was heroin, and before that it was marijuana. By assigning a priority to that drug, we curtail its activities and start a downward slide."

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