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Task force update

A Cowlitz County sheriff's deputy arrests a drug suspect in Kelso in this Daily News file photo from September 2003.

While new state funding might keep it afloat, the future of the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force remains uncertain in 2019. Its fate could rest with state legislators, who will be asked to finance its continued existence.

The inter-agency group that includes Kelso police, the sheriff’s offices of Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties and Washington State Patrol focuses on mid- to high-level drug traffickers. It collected more than 32 pounds of meth, heroin and cocaine and made 293 arrests in 2016 and 2017.

A national legal battle over immigration law continues to tie up a federal grant from last year, which was budgeted to cover a detective for the task force. The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) funding has aided the task force since 2005, although it has dwindled in recent years and cities and local agencies have increasingly had to pick up the tab.

Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee has included money in his proposed 2019-21 state budget to help fund the task force. Kelso Police Chief Andrew Hamilton, who took over as chairman of the task force in November, is optimistic it will pass based on conversations with local senators and representatives.

Otherwise, “It means they wouldn’t be able to operate as they do now and would probably have to shut down,” Hamilton said.

The governor’s budget calls for $8 million for new “drug and gang task force” funding. Hamilton said he didn’t know the exact amount that would go to the task force, but he assumed it would be similar to the past Byrne grant monies.

State Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview) said he supports the funding and pointed to the success of a rural drug task force in Pacific County and nearby regions before budget woes disbanded it.

“The sheriffs I talked to said you can tell the difference,” Takko said Saturday. “Anything that gets those task forces going again, I support it.”

Federal Byrne grant money accounted for $120,000 of the Task Force’s roughly $400,000 budget in 2018. Loss of that, combined with Wahkiakum County’s refusal to contribute $30,000, left the Task Force with a third less revenue.

The task force found two sources of relief late last year: Kelso covered the cost of the task force detective from May to September, costing the city about $44,000, according to City Manager Steve Taylor. The detective’s position has been funded since through a combination of federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) funds and remaining money in the task force budget.

Officers in the unit come from Kelso PD, the Cowlitz and Wahkiakum sheriff’s offices and Washington State Patrol. The task force does not include members from the Longview Police Department, which does the majority of its drug enforcement through its Street Crimes Unit.

Former Cowlitz County Sheriff Mark Nelson said in December he expected the task force’s survival to come down to local support.

He said he appreciated the work by Washington legislators and the governor’s office to fight for funding. But he called the state funding “a big if.”

“My discussions with sheriff-elect (Brad Thurman) and with others have been: Work hard to find this funding. Don’t depend on the state. Don’t depend on the federal government. ... We have to do it. We can’t just stop. Somebody’s gonna have to step up and fund it.”

Now-Sheriff Thurman said he’s committed to keeping the task force running and said he’d pursue local funding if the federal or state funds don’t come through.

Nelson expressed frustration with the legal battle.

“Because of their disagreement with ... I assume the Trump administration and such, those funds are being held up not by the federal government but by our own state government.”

In 2017, the Trump administration imposed immigration-based rules required for agencies to receive the drug enforcement funding. The rules required grant recipients to give advance notice to the federal government of release times of jailed non-citizens, give federal agents access to question jailed non-citizens about their immigration status, and give federal agents information on citizenship or immigration status when requested.

In August, Washington and several other states sued the Department of Justice to block the rules. On Nov. 30 the U.S. District Court in New York ordered the Byrne JAG drug enforcement funds distributed. But the Department of Justice has challenged the language of the ruling, further delaying the funds, said Brionna Aho, a spokeswoman for the Washington Attorney General’s Office.

“Because of our lawsuit, a judge ordered the Department of Justice on Nov. 30 to issue the grant funding without the unlawful conditions it had previously tried to impose,” she said by email. “Now DOJ is trying to challenge the language of that ruling, causing further delay for grant recipients.”

That has left task force officials in a waiting game and appealing to the Legislature to continue the program.

“The battle that halted (funding) ... there’s really nothing we can do about that,” Hamilton said.

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