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Prometheus rising

SLO County's sheriff creates new Special Operations Unit to handle anti-gang and drug enforcement in the absence of the state-funded Narcotics Task Force

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It was an eerily quiet night in Morro Bay as the City Council slowly ebbed its way through the Jan. 24 agenda.

The repetitive nodding of one of the few residents still in the audience appeared to be more a struggle to stay conscious than a positive affirmation of any particular issue.

‘I WANT THE RESPONSIBILITY’ :  San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson speaks of reestablishing regional anti-gang and narcotics units—which he hopes will eventually include participation from each local law enforcement agency—to fill the void left by a state in financial crisis. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ‘I WANT THE RESPONSIBILITY’ : San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson speaks of reestablishing regional anti-gang and narcotics units—which he hopes will eventually include participation from each local law enforcement agency—to fill the void left by a state in financial crisis.

Toward the end of the evening, the council moved on to one of its last items: a mid-fiscal year budget review.

None of the attendees seemed to notice, and none of the usual suspects spoke a word of it during public comment, but buried within the budget report was an amendment: a request for $10,000 to join the new countywide regional narcotics task force.

For the first time in more than seven years, the Morro Bay Police Department’s investigative capabilities would extend beyond its own city limits, and Police Chief Tim Olivas was all for it.

Some on the council seemed caught off kilter, forcing Olivas to really sell the idea. He explained that this one-time money—taken from some unanticipated funds in the city’s budget—would buy entry into the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Department’s new Special Operations Unit and would bolster the city’s capacity to crack down on its growing narcotics issues.

While the council majority appeared grateful for the opportunity, two council members, including Mayor Bill Yates, weren’t sold. Recalling the controversial 2010 SWAT-style raids on the homes of 12 local medical marijuana collective members and their families, Yates said out loud what some people watching were likely thinking.

“For years we weren’t part of this, and to me, the county mis-stepped, to put it lightly,” Yates said. “I have no respect for the old Narcotics Task Force for the trauma that they brought to our county residents and their children.”

Olivas’s defense: “If we do not join the county, I can tell you it will cripple us as an agency in our ability to do long-term investigations. I’m serious.”

That a mayor would take to task his chief of police for wanting to increase his department’s crime-fighting capabilities is far from the norm. Yates suggested waiting it out for one year to observe the new unit’s “behavior,” but the chief clearly had the support of the council majority.

The very next day, following a three-week investigation, the sheriff’s narcotics unit arrested a man at a Morro Bay taco shop on suspicion of selling cocaine out of the kitchen.

The county’s former regional multi-agency unit, the San Luis Obispo County Narcotics Task Force, which was mostly funded by the state, officially died with a whimper in January after the latest round of budget slashing from Sacramento.

The Sheriff’s Department is now trying to reassemble the broken pieces of the NTF, like the ambiguous creation of Victor Frankenstein. It’s an unprecedented undertaking for the county, as residents and officials on the sidelines are increasing the call for a crackdown on local gang- and drug-related activity.

Others, however, are looking on in hopes that under the watch of Sheriff Ian Parkinson, the Special Operations Unit won’t evolve into the monster so many saw in the inscrutable NTF.

 

A state of flux

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s June 2011 budget proposal featured some of the most significant cuts in California’s history. Funding for social services, education, and other programs that commonly enjoyed state support were gutted in an attempt to get the state’s troubled finances back on track.

Since the mid ’70s, the California Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Division of Law Enforcement has sponsored regional task forces to assist local county and city agencies fight organized crime such as narcotics trafficking and gang proliferation.

In June, Attorney General Kamala Harris announced that the DOJ would be forced to close down its two investigative bureaus, which oversaw those regional forces. Since then, Division of Law Enforcement Chief Larry Wallace told New Times, the DOJ was forced to cut funding for 34 of its 52 regional task forces, as well as its special agents assigned to each of the task forces as a supervisor.

Following the release of Gov. Brown’s budget, Sheriff Parkinson said he saw the writing on the wall.

“There was a lot of doom and gloom,” he said. “The initial outlook when this was coming down was, ‘What are we going to do?’”

If there were some worried officials, it was with good reason. According to those who spoke with New Times for this article, prior to the drop in state funding, the NTF was the one unit that brought everyone on the same page. The very makeup and nature of the task force allowed police departments to share resources and information, coordinate joint operations, and move beyond city—and even county—borders when the job called for it.

It operated on an annual budget of $370,000 and was run by a Board of Governors, made up of chiefs from the county’s seven incorporated cities, the sheriff, and the heads of the county’s Probation Department, Social Services, and District Attorney’s Office.

Pismo Beach Chief of Police Jeff Norton was the last sitting chair of the NTF’s Board of Governors. He told New Times that roughly $70,000 covered the NTF’s downtown San Luis Obispo office, and the majority of the rest covered equipment and paid the salary of the DOJ commander. The commander headed the unit and was the county’s caveat to the resources and connections of the DOJ.

According to Norton, in 2010, the NTF was involved in 205 “major activities,” which included investigations and devoting bodies to local operations. He said our local NTF conducted 94 investigations of its own, resulting in 75 arrests.

In other words, the task force was invaluable. But in recent years, the model had become less than optimal.

“From my perspective, it was just lack of control,” Parkinson said. “When you have local control, you have local responsibility. And as far as I know, all the chiefs were feeling the same way. They were feeling as though we had kind of lost that ability to completely control the unit.”

Another problem, he said, was resources. Even before it lost state funds, the NTF was in bad shape. The number of participating city agencies and the number of officers they assigned were dwindling, down to seven members in 2010.

“The model worked for a number of years, but as the years went on, it began to raise some issues,” Parkinson said. “They were constantly looking for other resources to supplement themselves, and it definitely became a problem.”

When Gov. Brown announced his budget plans, Parkinson immediately began talks with his department and neighboring police department heads, floating the idea of incorporating whatever resources remained from the NTF into his own preexisting gang unit, which had always worked independently of the NTF.

The department spent the next six months preparing for the hammer to fall, which it did, as expected, in January 2012.

Now the sheriff has drafted a new Memorandum of Understanding, which will serve as a contract of sorts between all participating departments. The organization and expectations of those participating will be largely like they were under the old NTF, but all under the direction of Parkinson.

It was a natural call for the Sheriff’s Department to make the move, he said. For one, they already have their own gang and narcotics units, and the facilities. And the office was already responsible for a number of resources used by the old NTF, such as the property room.

The Sheriff’s Department operates on an annual budget of roughly $55.6 million, which won’t be affected by expanding the new units, Parkinson said. So how can the department take this on without asking for an extra dime?

The answer is simple. As a term of participation in the unit, local police departments will be expected to contribute on a scale. For cities with a population of 20,000 and under, Parkinson is asking for a $20,000 contribution. Cities with more residents are expected to provide an officer who will be assigned to the SOU full-time.

GANG BUSTERS :  As the Sheriff’s Department amps up its anti-gang enforcement, one of its strategies is to increase its community presence, namely from behind the wheel of its new marked Chevy Caprice. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • GANG BUSTERS : As the Sheriff’s Department amps up its anti-gang enforcement, one of its strategies is to increase its community presence, namely from behind the wheel of its new marked Chevy Caprice.

Cities that contribute an officer are expected to cover the funding that goes with the body—vehicle, fuel, cell phones, safety equipment, and the like. The terms of their participation are indefinite, and can be terminated at any time by written notice to the sheriff. The sheriff, as well, will be able to terminate the agreement at any time.

Parkinson also did a little internal reorganizing of his commanders’ and their deputies’ duties, but none that required additional overtime.

While each city has either already signed on or told Parkinson of its intent to do so, those decisions must first make their way through each respective city council for approval.

In addition to Morro Bay’s Olivas, Atascadero Police Department Chief Jerel Haley confirmed to New Times the city had already formally signed on with the new units. So has the DA’s Office, according to spokesman Jerret Gran, and the County Probation Department, according to Chief Jim Salio.

Pismo Beach Chief Jeff Norton, Grover Beach Chief Jim Copsey, and Arroyo Grande Cmdr. Beau Pryor all said their respective departments plan to contribute to the unit. They aim to take the request to their respective city councils in the coming months.

San Luis Obispo Police Chief Steve Gesell did not return several requests for comment, though Parkinson said he’s been told the city wants in.

But Paso Robles—target of a September crackdown in response to a number of violent crimes—is still largely up in the air. Police Chief Lisa Solomon told New Times the city held a “recovery” workshop on Feb. 11, exploring the possibility of coming up with the funds to take part in the new unit. Solomon said the City Council will likely address the issue in the next two months.

“We know we have challenges here,” Solomon said. “It’s incredibly important we maintain that tight communication with the rest of the county.”

Parkinson admits there are still details to be ironed out across the board, but the state abandonment of the regional task forces may have been a blessing in disguise, he said. As the county takes over anti-drug and -gang operations, opportunities will likely increase for federal grant funding.

The sheriff also has the opportunity to solicit the help of federal agencies. The Sheriff’s Department already has a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer assigned, Parkinson said, and by involving that group, or perhaps the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has a field office in Santa Maria, additional resources become available.

“If we need them, they’re only a phone call away,” he said. “Getting them involved, and honestly, getting them involved for their money. They certainly have resources that we don’t have, and having that connection is important.”

More funds could possibly come from asset forfeiture cases, where ill-gotten cash and property are seized and absorbed into a special county fund once those assets are proven to have come from an illegal source, such as narcotics trafficking. The investigating agency responsible for the bust is rewarded for its efforts with a roughly 50 percent cut of the seized loot.

Since the DOJ began tracking and publishing annual reports in 2002, the county has received nearly $995,000 in real property and bank accounts. Up to 2008, the county was pulling in an average of $90,000 a year—much of that a direct result of the NTF.

SLO County saw a massive jump in 2008 and 2009, however, the latter bringing in nearly $332,000 alone. In March 2012, the DOJ released its 2010 report showing that SLO County only pulled in about $32,700 in asset forfeiture. Much of those funds—which the Sheriff’s Department must formally request from the Board of Supervisors before it can touch the money—are still available, and more will trickle into the account as criminal cases from the previous year make their way through the system.

“For us, asset forfeiture helps us pay for things that we need,” Parkinson said. “But the problem with that money is that you can’t—nor should you—count on it.”

But for the time being, it seems that if there’s any winner in this situation, the county may be it. Its own gang and narcotics investigative units are bolstered at no additional cost.

“Budget wise, nothing’s really changed for us, which is the beauty of the whole thing, to be honest,” Parkinson said. “I think this is kind of a blessing [that] the state pulled from the task force. I didn’t want to be the shark in the water when this was being proposed, but I think we could all see the benefit of blending our two units together.”

 

In the same boat

This undertaking isn’t unique to SLO County.

DOJ Division Chief Wallace told New Times that since the axe came down in January, an additional 10 task forces in high-focus areas such as Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento have been able to survive through a combination of federal, state, and local support, along with some clever grant-writing and deployment of seized funds.

When asked which county is a good example of succeeding without help from the state, DOJ Special Agent Michelle Gregory didn’t waste a second in replying, “Humboldt.”

Though the makeup of Humboldt and SLO counties are completely different in terms of crime, they’re following roughly the same models to mitigate the loss of their state support. And in the case of Humboldt, said County Sheriff Deputy Lt. Steve Knight, it’s working.

He said gangs aren’t so much the issue in Humboldt as are illegal marijuana grows and narcotics trafficking. In recent months, he said, the task force has confiscated an unusual amount of illegal marijuana, homemade hashish, prescription drugs, and evidence of the county’s “significant” heroin problem.

“Sometimes it’s hit and miss,” Knight said. “Right now, we’re hitting a lot.”

Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey told New Times that he started the consolidation well before the funding had dried up.

“Yes, we’re doing it now, and I’d like to think we’re doing a real good job with what we’ve got,” he said.

Downey said two things have been a saving grace for his department: being able to reassign a detective to head the task force, and the fact that Humboldt is a state leader in asset forfeiture cases, bringing in nearly $634,000 in 2010. Downey said he has two years’ worth of reserves in his county’s account.

He added that in the last week alone, his task force seized more than half a million dollars in marijuana.

“The State of California turned off the lights and locked the doors and didn’t even kiss us goodbye,” Downey said. “But I would encourage your sheriff that he’s doing the right thing.”

 

‘Black eyes’

If Parkinson wants total control of the new county gang and narcotics units, there’s little question of why. The last two years had not been kind to the old NTF in the court of public opinion. Three operations in particular had earned the unit a reputation of being heavy-handed, suspicion of conducting questionable investigative work leading to criminal cases the DA’s Office couldn’t win, and even accusations of harassment and retribution.

In a number of different contexts, the local NTF was referred to as “the cowboys.”

In April 2010, the task force drew the ire of the community after it poured “a ton of officers and a ton of resources,” as Parkinson put it, into a massive operation at the Pozo Saloon, a popular outdoor music venue in rural northern SLO County.

During the third annual “420 Fest”—an all-day reggae concert attended by some 2,000 people—roughly 50 uniformed and undercover officers conducted a sting that was described by witnesses to be questionable at best, and downright dirty at worst.

According to witnesses and a few of the arrested, plainclothes officers inside the venue approached unsuspecting concertgoers, soliciting them for marijuana. The few to oblige the officers were suddenly whisked away in handcuffs.

Of the eight people arrested that day on felony charges of selling controlled substances, half saw their charges later dismissed; those charged with felony intent to sell had charges reduced to misdemeanor possession.

Then-commander of the NTF told New Times that officers had reason to believe a large-scale drug transaction was to take place at the concert.

In September 2010, roughly a dozen NTF officers in full SWAT gear staged an early morning search at the rural Paso Robles home of Brianne Deitze and Jim Eickholdt. Nothing illegal was found, and no one was arrested, but the raid set into motion a battle with county code enforcement over renovations made to the home.

Friends and family allege the couple was targeted by the task force as a result of Eickholdt’s very public campaign to have the county investigate the death of his friend Jay Vestal, who was suffocated while being taken into custody by sheriff’s deputies in 2003. In front of media during a community forum following Vestal’s death, Eickholdt called for then-Sheriff Pat Hedges to initiate drug tests on his deputies.

Most recently, the NTF arrested 12 local medical marijuana delivery service operators following a two-month investigation.

Reports of NTF officers in full SWAT getup kicking down doors of family residences, pointing rifles at children, and ill-treating those taken into custody inspired a series of rallies and demonstrations by medical marijuana activists.

Parkinson acknowledged that the NTF earned a number of “black eyes” over the years, including from the medical marijuana and Pozo fiascos.

“I think the black eye part of the old NTF, it was coming to a head. You can only point at the NTF so many times,” he said. “It was no secret that this wasn’t this federal unit out there, it was us. It was our people.”

Parkinson said that with the new unit, there will be no question with whom the buck stops.

“And I’m willing to take that responsibility—but not without the authority to run the unit the way I want,” he added.

Parkinson said that while the new unit will continue to enforce the law when it comes to medical marijuana, that will take a back seat to larger problems. He said a local judge’s recent ruling on a number of cases presents an obstacle to prosecuting violations of medical marijuana law.

My direction with our narcotics unit is that unless it’s an obvious illegal operation, we’re just going to get all their information, document everything, and not make the arrest on it,” he said. “I don’t want to be in the position where I’m spending a ton of time and resources investigating a case that I can’t prosecute.”

The marijuana issue isn’t one Parkinson’s taken lightly. It was a major issue in his campaign, and he has directly lobbied the office of the state Attorney General for better guidelines as to what is and is not allowed. After meeting with the attorney general, Parkinson said he was told there wouldn’t be new guidelines after all, and he should instead wait for the Legislature to make a move.

“Quite honestly, it’s a mess. I fully intended on coming in to provide some guidance to people, and the deeper I got into it, as this year’s progressed, the worse it’s gotten,” Parkinson said. “Until they resolve it, everybody’s in the middle. And I think that law enforcement is in the very worst spot.”

 

A new phenomenon

Parkinson said the Board of Governors will officially dissolve the old Narcotics Task Force at its next meeting, sometime in the next month. He said he’s still conducting an audit of the old NTF resources to see what can be put to use.

Already, Parkinson said, he’s feeling good about the move. While narcotics-related cases will continue to pose a challenge across the county, he said he’s been greatly encouraged by the recent steps in gang prevention, both within and outside of his department.

The increased presence of the Special Operations Unit, combined with a number of youth-oriented pilot programs in North and South County school districts, which are co-sponsored by the county’s Probation Department and the newly formed Anti-Gang Commission, provide the preventative measures that Parkinson said will round out his new units’ stepped-up enforcement efforts.

The extra shot in the arm from local agency participation has Deputy Mike Hoier—a 14-year veteran of the office and six-year veteran of the existing gang unit—optimistic that the unit is positioning itself to make a lasting impact on gang activity in San Luis Obispo County.

“I’ve got to hand it to Sheriff Parkinson,” Hoier said after Parkinson had left the room. “One of his goals was to increase the gang unit. In one year, he basically doubled its size.”

He added, “This is going to be a phenomenal thing, I think.”

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

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