The over Byrne cuts

     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."

     As that occurs, he says those calling the money shots deem the program a success and reallocate funding to other issues viewed as more pressing. But behind the scenes, those in the trenches see a rise in the use and sale of other narcotics. For instance, Groves says as drug enforcement assaulted Missouri meth trafficking, black tar heroin and LSD rose in popularity. Law enforcement has nearly purged this state of local mom-and-pop meth cooks, he says, but larger, more organized groups, such as Mexican drug cartels, have moved in with super labs and new narcotic offerings.

     "Like every good business person, drug traffickers continually find new ways to make money," Groves explains. "That's the way of the drug world. If one drug starts to falter, they bring back an old standby or a new type of drug."

     Logue also admits to a decline in Missouri meth production since 2002, but quickly emphasizes that "it's not that folks aren't out there doing drugs and committing crimes." Rather, he says, addicts have switched to more readily available, and less costly, substances, and traffickers are employing new means of avoiding detection.

     "It's a lot harder to get in," reports an undercover drug enforcement officer from Missouri. "I used to be able to get an 'in' with the guys who were cooking pretty easily. It's trickier to get in with today's criminals; their operations are more sophisticated, better funded and better organized than they used to be."

A working approach

     Proposals to cut federal task force subsidies are shortsighted, warns Kendall, who points out the stats clearly illustrate the success of this enforcement approach. In FY 2007, members of Iowa's drug enforcement teams arrested 3,095 individuals, responded to 363 meth labs and seized $3.1 million in street drugs.

     The Mid-Missouri Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Task Force shares a similar story. This unit operates in the Lake of the Ozarks region, a popular Midwestern vacation destination that doubles its citizen population during the spring and summer months. Rural communities dominate the area and, at the time of the task force's inception in 2002, so did meth labs. The scourge of drugs across this meth-infested state — Missouri ranks No. 1 in the nation for meth production — fed into the task forces' ready hands. While Missouri leads the nation in labs, Wheatley's quick to point out these numbers reflect "seized," not operating, setups. "It shows that we're out there doing our jobs," he says. His organization, one out of six task forces in the state, takes in 90 meth labs a year, and affects more than 1,500 arrests, involving anything from narcotics distribution to weapons offenses, theft and strong arm robbery.

     One reason task forces work is they focus their duties solely on drug enforcement. States send these drug enforcers to specialized training, including advanced narcotics schools and meth lab take-down courses. This concentration immerses members in the narcotics world and all of its nuances, and helps them stay abreast of emerging developments. "It's such a changing world that if there is a break in that enforcement, you could really lose sight of current trends and things like that," Logue maintains.

     Terry Lemming, statewide drug enforcement coordinator for the Illinois State Police, agrees task forces cover interdiction more completely than other means of enforcement. "One of the biggest things we see is great cooperation among the law enforcement partners in our task forces," he says of Illinois' 23 drug enforcement teams, 20 of which are funded with Byrne grants.

     According to Lemming, these units capitalize on a collective rather than individual approach to interdiction. A local law enforcement officer maintains jurisdiction within his community. If he investigates a dealer, who's selling drugs in other counties, his investigation must come to an end at the city limits or county line. In Illinois, drug enforcement task forces hold statewide jurisdiction because they fall under the state police umbrella. "As a result we see conspiracy cases develop; cases that wouldn't have been built if we'd been working on it individually," he says. "Cases cross boundaries because task force members can investigate in multiple counties."

     The task force model definitely increases information sharing, Wheatley agrees, noting that Mid-Missouri sheriffs and task force officers convene monthly. These gatherings provide a forum to discuss types of thefts, fugitives, new drug trends, and other key issues.

     "Task forces are a very efficient way of doing business," adds Kendall, who notes these units foster resource sharing between departments. The state of Iowa is peppered with small towns with less than five to 10 officers on the force. According to Kendall, these cash-strapped communities cannot justify paying overtime for patrol officers to investigate drug trafficking. But because a task force's jurisdiction may span two to nine counties, the expense of this enforcement can be shared.

Disaster on the horizon

     Experts predict catastrophe if the proposed funding cut comes to fruition. They envision increased drug sales, use and abuse; a spike in violent crime; and a swell in other criminal offenses as well.

     The fact of the matter, says Logue, is that drugs go hand in hand with other types of crimes. As Wheatley points out, 75 to 80 percent of all offenses can be tied in some way to the use, sale or abuse of drugs. "Anything from homicides to assaults to domestic batteries to prostitution and theft are perpetrated by drug users who need money for dope," he explains.

     Eliminating multi-jurisdictional enforcement efforts also removes the fear of detection that prevents many individuals from using, or even trafficking, illicit substances. Lemming explains this phenomenon through the following analogy: "If you're driving down a well-enforced road, people may go over the speed limit by 5 to 10 miles an hour because they think there might be a police officer over the next hill or around the next bend. It's the same with drug enforcement. If we eliminate drug enforcement or reduce the number of officers, the fear of being caught will decrease."

     Missouri already suffers from the after-affects of enforcement cutbacks due to earlier funding deficits that forced some task forces to shut down. "We've seen lab increases off of that," Wheatley says. "If they let it go back to the way it was [in 2002], it will take several years and 10 times as much money for us to recover."

     Eighty-five percent of the cases opened by Iowa's Division of Narcotics Enforcement in 2007 originated from multi-jurisdictional task force efforts. Because the majority of these teams' investigations wind up being adopted for federal prosecution, Kendall fears there may not be anyone to cover enforcement at the grassroots level should these units disband. "The whole goal of this effort is to start at the community level and work up the distribution chain until we get to the big players," he explains, adding that just five to six Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) field agents patrol the entire state of Iowa — as is the case in most states — and patrol officers are already stretched too thin and oversaturated with other duties.

     Groves advises lawmakers not to overlook the impact the sale and abuse of illicit substances has on children raised in affected homes, which in turn burdens the school system, an already over-taxed family services network, and other organizations that must assist these kids.

     Not only that but when narcotics crime increases, the use of weapons and explosives also rises. "The situation quickly becomes an ATF issue, an IRS problem, and a postal service concern," he says. "As enforcement diminishes, you successfully curtail or eliminate many of the early warning systems, and the government's ability to collectively respond to the narcotics flow."

The big picture

     But placing too much emphasis on enforcement and funding may also be shortsighted, warns Groves, who urges examining drug use and drug crimes in a holistic way. He underscores that it's important to consider the big picture instead of simply "creating pods of enforcement."

     The nation's drug problem has existed for many years — and as Groves says, it's unlikely to ever cease. The entire nation, he stresses, must closely scrutinize the nature of the problem then develop a means of addressing it and an appropriate measure of success. "You have to work toward an end state first then back plan from that," he says. "And, we have to be realistic and ask ourselves if we 'can' get to where we want to be. If we can't, then we need to ask ourselves what we are willing to settle for and what will give us the most impact against this blight on our society."

     Attending to the country's drug problem cannot be a "fixed in concrete" policy either, he states. Strategies must be as flexible and fluid as the perpetrators of drug-related crimes, and as varied as the substances they sell.

     At the same time, Groves adds that the ability to truly wage war on the drug trade hinges on adequate funding and enforcement. Decreased law enforcement presence spells opportunity to drug traffickers because no one will be there to interdict them. He adds, "By cutting funding, you're essentially creating a safe haven for their 'businesses' to flourish."

Where Byrne-JAG began

     The Byrne-JAG story began on February 26, 1988. This is when Officer Edward R. Byrne of the New York City Police Department was on detail protecting a witness who had agreed to testify in court against local drug dealers. As he sat in his patrol car outside the witnesses' home, around 3:30 a.m., two armed gunmen crept up to his car from both sides. One of the men knocked on the passenger-side window to distract Byrne as a second perpetrator ran up to the driver's side window and opened fire, shooting the 22-year-old officer five times in the head. Both gunmen, along with two other perpetrators acting as lookouts, fled the scene.

     Authorities captured the four assailants — members of a gang that had been instructed by a jailed drug kingpin to kill a police officer — six days later, and the courts later sentenced them to 25 years to life.

     As part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, the U.S. Government launched a Department of Justice initiative titled the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. The initiative was designed to help state and local governments support activities aimed at preventing and controlling crime and improving the justice system. Over the years, it has saved the lives of countless young officers and has improved the safety of communities across the United States.