Governor’s cuts led to Eastside drug task force’s demise

Despite the growing problem of drug addiction regionally and statewide and differing funding recommendations, Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature completely halted all state funding for drug task forces, leading to the demise of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force.

Some of the items recovered during a task force raid. Photo courtesy of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force.

Despite the growing problem of drug addiction regionally and statewide and differing funding recommendations, Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Legislature completely halted all state funding for drug task forces, leading to the demise of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force.

“It was a cut I think we would have preferred not to have proposed,” said Sandy Mullins, senior policy advisor to Gov. Inslee. “For some places that don’t have a narcotics unit, this is the only proactive law enforcement going on to combat these drug units.”

After years of decreasing funding, the state Legislature approved a proposal made by Gov. Inslee last year to cut all state funding for the 18 drug task forces in Washington.

Initially, the Department of Commerce recommended a reduction of $192,000 over 2016 and 2017. Across the board, that recommendation would have put each task force’s allotment at roughly $24,700 — their lowest state grant yet.

However, in the final budget passed by both arms of the state Legislature that Inslee signed off, state grants to the state drug task forces were fully cut. Altogether, around $1.3 million was taken away from the 18 drug task forces in the state.

That decision led, in part, to the demise of the Eastside Narcotics Task Force and means that the remaining drug task forces must compete for dwindling federal grants and find other methods of funding

“It’s going to be a fight, we’re competing for money, as are other drug task forces,” said Deputy Scott Wilson of the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team, which operates in Kitsap and Mason counties.

Over the last five years, state and federal grants have fallen significantly.

Federal funding through the Department of Justice’s Byrne Justice Assistance Grant has nearly halved, falling from $210,000 in fiscal year 2010/2011 to $123,000 in 2015/2016. That’s a far cry from the roughly $300,000 departments were receiving during the height of the War on Drugs, according to Wilson. The West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team has had to curtail some types of operations as a result, he said.

“There was a lot of money in the 90s, particularly going into the drug war. The fact is that the priority has shifted — there’s been a lot more money put towards treatment and diversion efforts,” Mullins said.

The Byrne grant was originally the primary source of drug task force funding. As it started decreasing, the state began supplementing the task forces to keep them going, she said.

But last year, the governor decided the state couldn’t continue the funding.

“With the demands on the state budget, McCleary in particular, they felt that the municipalities should pick up that responsibility,” Rep. Patty Kuderer (D-Bellevue) said of the decision.

While the funding has fallen, drug use and drug crimes have risen statewide and regionally.

In Bellevue, heroin-related 911 calls tripled in four years. The Bellevue Police responded to slightly more than 40 heroin-related calls in 2010. That number rose to approximately 120 in 2014, according to the department.

The use of Narcan — a drug that overrides a drug overdose — has increased in use by the Bellevue Fire Department and paramedics (who do respond to calls outside of Bellevue, from Mercer Island to the Snoqualmie Pass, in some cases). In 2010, they administered Narcan on 49 occasions. For the last three years, they have consistently been administering Narcan to around 75 victims annually.

King County overall saw a 21 percent rise in opiate-related deaths.

That is on par with the rise in heroin use and opiate deaths statewide, according to a 2013 study released by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. The age of hard drugs users is going down, according to Commander Pat Slack of the Snohomish County Drug Task Force.

Police are also collecting more and more pieces of heroin evidence. While the past decade has seen a decline in the amount of evidence tested at the state crime lab, heroin evidence increased by 250 percent between 2001 and 2011.

While the loss of funding played a large part in the Eastside Task Force’s decision to shutter, it was not the sole reason for that decision.

“I’m not going to speak for what would have happened if there was a change, what I can say is that it wasn’t the only factor,” said Seth Tyler, spokesperson for the Bellevue Police Department, which co-chairs the Eastside Narcotics Task Force.

Both the Mercer Island and Kirkland police departments recently decided to stop providing manpower to the operation, according to Tyler.

As was previously reported, the change in drug laws threw a curveball at the Eastside Narcotics Task Force, which had made several large busts of marijuana operations before the drug’s legalization. Two cases in 2010 each yielded $1 million in pot plants.

Task forces often relied on asset forfeiture and rewards from uncovered drugs to fund costs not covered by the dwindling grants.

Representatives from the Department of Justice did not respond to questions of why federal funding has decreased. Mullins said that she doubts Inslee has specifically approached Congress about the funding, as any push for funding would likely fall under the state congressional delegration’s umbrella.

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