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Seizures Help Underwrite Enforcement Efforts : Drug Law Makes Crime Pay--for Police

November 28, 1986|DENISE-MARIE SANTIAGO | Times Staff Writer

Crime does pay, at least for the West Covina Police Department.

West Covina has fared well under a 2-year-old federal program that allows local law-enforcement agencies who work with federal agents to claim 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, equals 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 detectives on television's "Miami Vice" jealous.

Variety of Equipment

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.

Provides Incentive

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

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

"In many instances, the dope peddler has better equipment and less budgetary constraint than do municipal police departments," Strosser said, adding that his department "has repeatedly borrowed equipment that we simply don't have."

"It seems totally appropriate to me that the cost of properly outfitting portions of our Police Department should be borne by the people breaking the law as opposed to you and me as the taxpayer," he said.

Pasadena has not received money through the program but has pending claims amounting to at least $330,000, he said.

The West Covina Police Department intensified its campaign against drugs about two years ago. The special enforcement team, originally charged with tracking career criminals and putting them in prison, was asked to help the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Los Angeles Police Department investigate cocaine distributors in West Covina.

"That opened our eyes to the problems with regard to cocaine smugglers moving to (the West Coast) and moving to the suburbs," Meacham said.

Simi Valley Benefits

As a result of that cooperative effort, West Covina became one of the first cities in the nation to receive money through the program. The Los Angeles and Simi Valley police departments, which also took part, received part of the haul of more than $2 million.

Since 1984, the West Covina special team, which consists of five undercover officers, has confiscated about $2.78 million in cash; $240,501 in jewelry, which will be appraised and sold; $53,715 in stereo equipment; 148 weapons; 10 vehicles and $14,975 in office equipment, including two money counters, one of which is now being used in the city's finance department.

The team also has seized drugs with a street value of about $143.8 million and has made 558 arrests.

The most surprising coup was a monthlong investigation that culminated in April, when a neighbor's tip led to the arrest of 16 people in the San Gabriel Valley and the seizure of $2.4 million in cash and more than 600 pounds of cocaine.

What made the bust particularly lucrative for the department was that West Covina was the only local agency involved, allowing it to seek a major share of that haul, plus interest.

Claims Involve Fight

But the police often are not able to claim the money without a fight.

About half of the cases involving more than $100,000 in the U.S. Justice Department's Central (California) District, which includes Los Angeles and Orange counties, are contested by people who claim that the assets were not related to drug transactions, according to officials at the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.

The government wins more than 90% of those cases, said James Stotter II, assistant chief of the civil division for the Central District. His office makes recommendations to the U.S. attorney general's office on the distribution of assets in cases involving more than $100,000.

So far no one has contested West Covina's claim to a share of the $2.4 million, Stotter said.

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