Need for drug task force in village eyed
- Published: March 19, 2015
This is the second in a series of articles
examining the local police department and its relationship to the village.
• Click here to view all the articles the series
In January 2002, Yellow Springs High School senior Tim Lopez vanished. Described by loved ones as goofy and sweet, Tim had moved to the Yellow Springs area several years earlier with his mother, Barbara McQuiston, who worked as a researcher at YSI. While rumors swirled about Tim’s past involvement in a YSHS drug culture, he had recently, with the help of his girlfriend, turned his life around.
Tim remained missing for two years. In the spring of 2004, police, acting on a tip, found Tim’s body buried outside the home of Tim’s YSHS classmate, Michael Rittenhouse. A year later, Rittenhouse pleaded guilty to murder, and three years later, the incident was linked to the drug dealing charges against YSHS graduate Umoja Iddi Bakari, who was arrested in Atlanta, where he apparently committed suicide in jail.
The deaths of Lopez and Bakari and arrest of Rittenhouse took a toll on then Sergeant John Grote, who in 2005 became police chief. Following the Rittenhouse trial, Grote signed Yellow Springs on as a member of the Agencies for Combined Enforcement, or A.C.E. Task Force, which focuses on investigating drug-related crime.
“It’s what pushed me to go ahead” Grote said recently regarding the impact of the local tragedy on police joining the drug task force. Before the Lopez murder, he said, “I had been somewhat naive regarding the number of people involved in drug trades in high school and college.”
An apparent increase in heroin use at Antioch College at the time also affected his decision to join the task force, Grote said. While he didn’t believe then or now that drug use in Yellow Springs is more prevalent than in other communities, he believes that the village is not immune to the problem.
“It’s always been there,” Grote said of drug use in the village. “It’s in every community, everywhere.”
However, Grote wrestled continually with the expense to Village government of joining the drug task force, which includes the annual cost of an officer’s salary, along with other expenses. But until he resigned as chief in 2012, Grote stuck with the task force because he believed its work helped lessen the local impact of drugs.
“I won’t say things stopped, but it became harder to get heroin,” he said. “At least you had to go to Springfield or Dayton.”
Ten years after first signing on with A.C.E., Yellow Springs remains an active partner. However, the involvement of local police in the drug task force has become a topic of controversy, as some question whether the partnership is an appropriate use of resources in general, and especially in a time of fiscal belt-tightening.
“The war on drugs is a failed war,” Lindsay Burke wrote in an email this week. “The task force serves only to reinforce the school to prison pipeline. It ends the possibility for so many people to be functional members of society by handing out felonies over-abundantly and doling out life-altering prison sentences. Specifically in our small town, the task force is a quite unnecessary expense…”
The local police partnership with A.C.E. and the Greene County SWAT team will be among the topics discussed at the upcoming forum on police and the community, sponsored by the Human Relations Commission, or HRC. The event, which follows an initial October forum, takes place on Thursday, March 19, at 7 p.m. at the Bryan Center gym.
One of those looking forward to the event is Rev. Aaron Saari of the First Presbyterian Church, an HRC alternate.
“I do have concerns about the militarization of police and the targeting of people of color, although I’m not saying this happens locally,” Saari said this week. “I want local police to have the resources they need, but we’re not Dayton, not Springfield, not Xenia. I think policing looks a little different here.”
Saari has been very impressed with new Chief Dave Hale, and also has confidence in the local officers he knows. Overall, he said, he’s appreciative of the opportunity to discuss the issues.
“I’m glad to live here in the village where we can have this conversation,” he said.
What A.C.E. does
The A.C.E. task force is a multi-jurisdictional task force that “handles sensitive investigations,” according to Commander Bruce May in an interview last week. About 65 percent of the investigations involve drug trafficking and the remaining 35 percent involve crimes such as gambling, receiving stolen goods, burglary or murder, May said.
The task force is comprised currently of six full-time officers, although 10 to 12 officers is the desired number, May said. The officers represent Yellow Springs, Xenia, Fairborn, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department, Beavercreek and Sugarcreek Township.
While the end of year task force report for 2014 is not yet available, the group served 59 search warrants last year, including one in Yellow Springs, May said. Most of the warrants were served in Greene County, although 12 were served in Montgomery County.
According to reports from the Dayton Daily News, in October of 2014 the task force arrested 10 people in Greene and Montgomery counties charged with heroin trafficking, and in June the group, working with police from Clinton County, Wilmington and the Greater Warren County Drug task force, charged 47 people in Greene, Clinton and Montgomery counties with trafficking drugs, after a long undercover investigation.
The bulk of the group’s work currently focuses on heroin, according to May recently.
“Heroin is the one that’s on top right now. It’s the drug of choice,” he said. “Three or four years ago, I would have said crack cocaine.”
The spike of heroin use in Ohio is considered an epidemic, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine at a community forum in Grove City last October. Heroin overdose has overtaken traffic accidents as the number one cause of accidental death in the state, and about 700 deaths statewide were linked to heroin in 2012.
While there is no clear evidence of heroin use or trafficking in Yellow Springs at this point, Police Chief Dave Hale believes the drug is around. “I believe heroin is as big a problem here per capita as elsewhere,” Hale said.
Anecdotally, a female heroin user recently arrested while driving in the village stated that heroin was easy to get in town, he said. And as someone on the job only six months, Hale believes that it takes a while to see the links between drug use and other types of crimes.
“A year from now we’ll be more able to make the connections,” he said.
The A.C.E. arrest made in Yellow Springs last year involved a person selling D.M.T., a hallucinogen, according to May.
As someone who has spent much of his career fighting drug-related crime, Hale is a strong supporter of maintaining the Yellow Springs involvement in the drug task force. While some question why local police should put their resources into drug busts due to the smaller number of cases in the village, Hale believes that behavior linked to drug use and drug trafficking are behind at least 50 percent of all criminal behavior.
“If the funding stays current, I’m a firm believer that the task force does reduce crime throughout the county, including Yellow Springs,” he said. “It makes Yellow Springs a safer place.”
Some villagers disagree with that assumption, however. To Shane Creepingbear, the task force is one of many anti-drug initiatives that “are presented as a way to address drug trafficking but in reality have served to de-stabilize communities that have historically been targeted and marginalized the poor and people of color.”
Matt Carson also believes that the task force “targets working people and especially people of color.” He said he would like to see the Village cut the police budget altogether and instead use the $1.5 million now spent on police to end poverty in the village.
According to the 2013 year-end report from the task force, the group served a total of 76 search warrants that year, including three in Yellow Springs. According to a summary of seven of the most significant cases, four involved mainly marijuana growing or trafficking, two involved heroin trafficking and one involved trafficking in heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
What’s the cost?
As a member of the A.C.E. Task Force, the Yellow Springs police force receives varying amounts of cash in forfeiture payments each year from task force work depending on the amounts claimed in drug busts, with each municipality on the force receiving an equal amount. According to information submitted to Village Council at the end of 2014 by Chief Hale, the Yellow Springs police department had received $271,178 in cash forfeiture payments from the task force in the previous five years.
However, during that time the police paid the required annual fee for task force membership of $10,500, and also paid the salary averaging about $50,000 (plus $20,000 in benefits) annually for the officer assigned to the task force. The total cost per year for membership came to about $80,500 per year, or $402,500 for the same five-year perod. Consequently, the overall cost to the Village of task force involvement during those five years was about $131,322.
In a previous interview regarding the cost to the Village of task force involvement, Chief Hale stated that police work isn’t intended to make a profit, and the most important consideration is whether an activity helps reduce crime. However, he said last week, if budget considerations forced him to remove one officer from the department, he would take that officer from the task force rather than reducing police coverage of the village. But if there is no budget pressure to downsize, he plans to maintain the local presence in the task force. Current staffing levels locally are adequate, he believes, and while an extra officer would add one more body to the force, the addition wouldn’t increase services to the public.
When calculating the cost versus benefits a department receives from task force involvement, a municipality should also add in the benefit of the extra training received by the task force member officer, May said last week. Because officers tend to stay on the task force three to five years, they receive a considerable amount of specialized training.
“So when they go back, they take back the totality of what they’ve learned here,” he said.
However, Kate Hamilton worries that the training itself could work against the interests of the village. The task force can be seen as a “stepping stone” that attracts officers who don’t really want to work in a small town.
“I feel it could entice people to come here just to get on the task force” and then move on quickly to more exciting police work, having been trained on the Village’s dime, she said.
No longer SWAT member
Following the July 30, 2013, shootout and death of villager Paul E. Schenck, many were surprised to find out that Yellow Springs Officer Pat Roegner had on the night of the shootout suited up with the Greene County SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team, one of three SWAT teams on the scene that night. In fact, Yellow Springs was a member of the team, which also included representatives of the Xenia Police Department, the Greene County Sheriff’s Department, the Kettering Health Network and Wright State University.
Former Police Chief Anthony Pettiford had asked former Village Manager Laura Curliss the previous spring for permission to join the SWAT team due to Roegner’s interest, according to Pettiford in a previous interview. Curliss gave permission, although Village Council was not aware of the Village’s involvement with the SWAT team.
However, that involvement was short-lived because Roegner resigned from the local police force in the spring of 2014. While Pettiford had originally told Keller that he might be assigning another officer, the topic became controversial following the disclosure that Yellow Springs was a SWAT team member, and Pettiford did not move ahead with assigning the officer. Currently, according to Keller in a recent interview, Yellow Springs is not considered part of the team. Keller said he puts out a call yearly to area police departments to see if there is interest in joining SWAT and he had no indication of interest from Yellow Springs.
In a recent interview, Chief Hale said that being a part of SWAT “is a sensitive issue” about which he has mixed feelings.
“It’s not a bad thing but you have to look at the resources used, how much you train and how much you get back,” Hale said. Also, Hale is aware that the Greene County SWAT team is mandated to respond to requests for its service in all Greene County municipalities, so that Yellow Springs will receive that service regardless of whether or not it’s a member.
The cost required for SWAT involvement is far less than that of the A.C.E. Task Force, because the team contributes an officer only during raids and training rather than full time. An officer needs to train with the SWAT team once a month, according to Keller, so the expense is that required to cover that officer’s shift during training, which amounts to a few thousand dollars a year.
The Greene County SWAT team tends to be called up only a few times a year, in situations when police encounter someone using dangerous weapons, or a hostage situation. However, according to Keller, last year SWAT wasn’t called up at all.