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Seizure Law Makes Crime Pay--for Police

November 23, 1986|DENISE-MARIE SANTIAGO | Times Staff Writer

WEST COVINA — Crime does pay, at least for the Police Department in this city.

West Covina has fared better than any other police department in the San Gabriel Valley under a 2-year-old federal program that allows local law enforcement agencies who work with federal agents to claim as much as 100% of the money and property seized in drug arrests.

As a result of drug investigations, the department expects to receive more than $3 million in cash and property for 1986, up from $356,000 in 1985, according to Police Chief Craig Meacham.

The 1986 amount, swelled by a major April drug seizure, would equal almost one-third of the department's annual budget of about $9.2 million. The program requires that the money be used for law enforcement and stipulates that it cannot be used to replace current city funding.

"Drug smugglers are underwriting our drug enforcement efforts," said Meacham.

The department has used the money to purchase equipment that would make the cops on television's "Miami Vice" jealous.

Police now have at their disposal infrared lighting equipment, night-vision goggles, state-of-the-art recording equipment, a photography lab and an $85,000 mobile command unit equipped with telephones, a bathroom and cooking facilities.

Meacham called the mobile unit, which will be used at emergency and disaster scenes, "tangible evidence of the wisdom of the law. We thank the drug smugglers for making that available to us."

Ten automobiles, including some late-model luxury cars, also have been seized in the raids or bought with money from the program and are being used in undercover work.

In addition, the money is being used to pay all the expenses of a special enforcement team assigned to narcotics.

Several San Gabriel Valley police departments do not participate in the federal program because they do not have the officers to spare for investigations that sometimes can continue for months.

"We're a small department in a small city," said Irwindale Police Chief Julian Miranda. Like several other departments in the area, his has neither sought nor received money under the program.

"Our lack of population doesn't draw the big dealer," Miranda said.

The Alhambra Police Department has not received any funds through the program, said Police Chief Joseph Molloy, mainly because his department concentrates on street dealers.

"Once we get to a certain level, we turn it over to another agency," he said.

"I'm charged with trying to control street narcotics in Alhambra," Molloy said. "I don't have the resources to deal with the national problem. We're interested in people dealing with the kids and nickel-and-dime dealers.

"When you're dealing at the level that we're dealing with, you're not going to get the asset seizures," Molloy said.

West Covina's Meacham concedes that going for the larger busts can be expensive and time-consuming. He said a three-month investigation that culminated in September resulted in eight arrests, but nothing was seized.

"We apparently hit it right at a time when they were between shipments. When we got there, the cupboard was bare," he said.

"But that's the name of the game," Meacham said. "Sometimes you're fortunate and sometimes you strike out."

Nevertheless, other police departments are hoping to duplicate West Covina's success.

"They know how to communicate with the people close to the drug action and they're successful," said Capt. Richard Hoskin, operations commander for the Baldwin Park Police Department. "They work a whole lot of information coming in. Who is responsible, where, what's the volume, whether or not there's any potential for asset seizure.

"We're working on the same kind of approach, hoping to model our (narcotics team) after theirs," he said.

Hoskin said that his department received about $15,000 last year, from the sale of a boat that was linked to drug transactions. The money was used to buy a car that is used in narcotics investigations.

Hoskin said he expects the department to receive more funds through the program because "we're stepping up enforcement of narcotics with a greater emphasis on asset seizures."

He said he hopes to double the size of Baldwin Park's three-man narcotics team early next year. "We're doing it because of we know there's a drug problem," but the program "is an incentive," he said.

Other police officials in the area agree that the program provides an incentive to increased drug-enforcement efforts, which is what the federal government had hoped would happen.

Effectiveness Cited

"I have never seen the networking of agencies more effective than with this program," said Robert Strosser, a commander in the Pasadena Police Department.

Agencies tended to function independently in the past, he said.

"The fact that the local departments potentially and factually are going to benefit from these seizures at the expense of the dope peddlers does nothing but evoke even more contact between these agencies and additional cooperative efforts," he said.

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