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Not Sharing Assets Seized in Busts Could Kill the Drug War, Police Say

November 05, 1987|WILLIAM OVEREND and JESS BRAVIN | Times Staff Writers

Orange County law enforcement officials have attacked a congressional proposal to freeze the distribution of confiscated drug assets to local police agencies, saying the end of the federal contraband-sharing program could hamper efforts to enforce narcotics laws.

"It absolutely will stop the war on drugs," said Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates, who asserted that without the drug enforcement programs made possible through the funds, "5,000 pounds of cocaine would still be on the street."

Anaheim Police Chief Jimmie Kennedy said the regional anti-drug program "definitely will disappear" if the contraband-sharing funds are cut off. And Santa Ana's top police investigator, Capt. Robert Stebbins, said the end of contraband-sharing would "put a dent in our ability to fight narcotics. We'd have to cut back severely."

Their comments came in response to a continuing lobbying effort by Southland law enforcement officials, including Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, against a measure before a House-Senate appropriations conference committee. The measure would delay any distribution of confiscated drug money to local law enforcement during the 1988 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Richard J. Olson said his agency has received $512,000 in contraband-sharing funds since September, 1986, including $240,000 from U.S. marshals on Wednesday from a January, 1986, drug seizure.

Olson said the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program, a coalition of several county and federal law enforcement agencies, may have to disband if it does not get money from the contraband-sharing program. The coalition has applied for about $4.4 million in drug arrest proceeds--money that would be frozen if the legislation passes.

Kennedy said Anaheim has received more than $2 million in such funds since the Justice Department began the program in 1984. Santa Ana has received $650,000 over the last year and a half, Stebbins said.

The proposal to delay paying any money to local police agencies was made earlier this year by a House appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Departments of State, Commerce, Justice and the federal judiciary, but the Senate later eliminated the proposal after the nation's police chiefs mounted a strong lobbying effort.

Although the proposal still remains before a conference committee, aides to Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a leader in the fight to continue funding the equitable sharing program, said Friday that the outlook is "pretty good" that the delay proposal originally advanced by Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) has died.

Orange County law enforcement officials' concerns were echoed by those in Los Angeles County.

Daryl Gates of the LAPD said Wednesday that denying the funds would cripple drug enforcement efforts throughout the nation.

"I believe the federal government's war on drugs will falter and probably die if Congress backs away from the drug forfeiture sharing program," Police Chief Gates said. "The federal government's war would die and local enforcement would die."

The LAPD alone has received about $7 million since the program began, Gates said. He estimated that the department is owed between $23 million and $28 million for its work in joint undercover drug operations.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block predicted that any delays would have a "tremendous impact" on the work of narcotics officers.

"In my own department we have funded 22 positions with drug forfeiture dollars," Block said. "The unit created with those dollars was responsible for the seizure (Monday) of $3.9 million in cocaine. (Tuesday night) in another seizure, they got 211 more kilograms of cocaine, and earlier today (Wednesday) they took down an arsenal of automatic weapons.

"If this money was not available, we would have to curtail our operations substantially. We have already received $1.7 million, and we have $12 million or $13 million in the pipeline. If that was taken away, we would not be in position to win any kind of war on drugs. In fact, we would be in retreat."

While Southern California law enforcement officials continued to criticize the House proposal, Smith, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, responded that their comments are "purely academic" in view of the most recent Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget cuts Congress passed last month. He said that although the issue is "technically" before a conference committee, the idea of discontinuing the sharing program has been discarded in favor of $30 million in actual budget cuts to law enforcement projects.

"Local law enforcement agencies will get their equitable shares, provided the money is actually there," Smith added. "But as for all this talk in the letters I've been getting, if that delay would have killed the war on drugs, then we don't have a war on drugs to start with."

Both Block and Los Angeles police officials, who have been crusading against Smith's proposal for the last two months, said they hope Smith's comments about the fate of his budget plan prove true, but they expressed some skepticism.

"The operable words he used were fair, equitable and swift," said LAPD spokesman William Booth. "We hope he's serious. This is not a clash of personalities. This is a major issue for law enforcement officials throughout the country."

While Block and Gates indicated that they have reasons to believe that their lobbying effort has been successful, both made it clear that they want a speedy conference committee resolution of the issue.

"I don't know that it's dead," Block said.

"That conference committee has been bombarded," Gates said. "I was hoping it would die a sudden death, but it hasn't died yet. Somebody has to shoot it to make sure."

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