Drug enforcement efforts throughout the nation would be crippled if Congress were to deny local police agencies a share of millions of dollars in seized drug assets, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates said Wednesday.
"I believe the federal government's war on drugs will falter and probably die if Congress backs away from the drug forfeiture sharing program," Gates said. "The federal government's war would die and local enforcement would die."
Gates' comments came in a continuing lobbying effort by law enforcement officials against a measure before a House-Senate appropriations conference committee that would delay any distribution of seized drug money to local law enforcement during the 1988 fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.
The Los Angeles Police Department alone has received about $7 million since the Justice Department instituted the program in 1984, Gates said. He estimated that the department is owed between $23 million and $28 million for its work in joint undercover drug operations.
Joining Gates in attacking any slowdown in paying local law enforcement its "fair share" of drug money seized in cooperation with federal agents was Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, who said in a separate interview 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," Block added. "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."
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 was later cut out by the Senate after a strong lobbying effort led by the nation's police chiefs.
While 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 original delay proposal advanced by Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa) is now dead.
While Gates and Block continued to criticize the House proposal, Rep. Smith, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee, responded that their comments were "purely academic" in view of the most recent Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget cuts passed by Congress last month. He said that while 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 they have reasons to believe 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."
Gates stressed that the LAPD has worked closely with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration for years on major cases, and he would have reservations about totally ending local cooperation with the federal government if the forfeiture sharing program is ever cut out. But he added that he would have a different attitude.
"In these big cases, if anyone believes the federal government is doing all this out here, they're crazy," Gates said. "Neither the DEA nor the FBI have enough manpower. They need our help."