Thursday, 30 May 2024

DOJ pulls out of local narcotic task force; local officials continue effort

LAKE COUNTY – Citing budget issues, the state Department of Justice has pulled out of its leadership role of the Lake County Narcotic Task Force, a move that has required a change locally in how the group will be managed.


“Mainly, it boils down to budget issues,” said DOJ spokesperson Dana Simas.


Simas said “extreme budget constraints” caused the agency to pull out of the two-decade-old task force. “We hope it's temporary.”


Sheriff Rod Mitchell said he received a letter from the state in January announcing the DOJ's intentions to pull out of two task forces – Lake's being one – citing “unprecedented budget reductions.”


He said the letter noted the agency was undergoing a $12 million budget reduction and the loss of 80 staff members.


“They're committed to coming back as soon as their staffing and funding permits,” he said.


Mitchell said he's seen the agency pull out of task forces before.


But just because the DOJ is pulling out doesn't mean that the task force – which is an agreement, not an entity – is going away. Mitchell guaranteed that it isn't, saying they'll continue to combat narcotics “with great fervor.”


He added that the change shouldn't cause any alarm for the public, nor should criminals start to relax.


With DOJ's withdrawal, Mitchell and other area law enforcement leaders – among them Clearlake Police Chief Allan McClain, Lakeport Police Chief Kevin Burke, California Highway Patrol Commander Lt. Mark Loveless and the Narcotic Task Force Steering Committee – have been working out the details of what the task force will look like going forward and how it will be managed.


“We're going to be working in partnership with each other, as closely as we can,” Mitchell said.


Mitchell emphasized that there's no way to do this kind of work without the agencies working closely together. That's particularly important when it comes to running operations smoothly and ensuring “deconfliction” – which essentially means making sure they're not interfering with another agency's undercover work.


Under the DOJ's leadership, the task force had seven members – one supervising DOJ agent, one officer each from Clearlake Police, Lakeport Police and CHP, two sheriff's deputies and a sheriff's secretary, half of whose salary Mitchell paid.


“The number of law enforcement officers in Lake County combating the drug problem and problems associated with drugs will not be reduced,” Mitchell said, adding that the number of dedicated law enforcement officers may even increase.


“We may have to redirect resources,” he said. “We're not going to let this thing get away from us.”


He said each of the local agencies have experienced narcotic investigators who they had considered co-locating in the sheriff's administrative offices, but that hasn't worked out, said Mitchell, so the agencies will continue to work out of their separate offices.


Mitchell said having the DOJ run the task force has advantages, including having money available for undercover work and assistance coordinating activities and investigations.


Staffing and building leads will be important issues going forward, said Mitchell.


He said the DOJ will continue to make technical assistance available to counties. “We're always helping each other, we have to.”


They'll also make staff and resources – such as some kinds of operational equipment – available during operations when needed, said Mitchell, so in that way things won't change.


The task force's steering committee also will remain in place, said Mitchell. The DOJ's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement will remain a part of the committee.


Cases continue to be worked, Mitchell added, with several investigations under way, as before.


A brief history of the task force


The task force deals with a broad range of narcotics, said Mitchell, such as methamphetamine and marijuana.


However, he said his office primarily handles pot eradication in the Mendocino National Forest because they have a contract for that work.


Mitchell said the narcotic task force began in 1988, when he was working locally as a deputy sheriff. “Meth labs were running rampant at the time.”


Since then, they don't see meth labs like they used to, he said, with a reduction in the numbers becoming notable several years ago. Street-level sales and use remain a big issue.


Methamphetamine, however, is linked to illegal marijuana, said Mitchell.


“There is a connection between the illegal marijuana trade and the profits going toward boosting up the methamphetamine trade,” he said.


Mitchell said the “grotesque” profits made by illegal marijuana are used to acquire methamphetamine and distribute it. Meth, comparatively, is very cheap, he said.


He said certain Mexican and outlaw motorcycle gangs now control major meth production. “It's more of a criminal enterprise than it used to be.”


McClain believes the task force has made a dent in the local production of methamphetamine. “They really had a heavy impact on their ability to produce locally.”


While there are still small labs here, the bigger ones now appear to have moved south, into Mexico, McClain said, because the profits were getting cut into by the task force's work.


McClain, who worked for many years in law enforcement in Kings County – where he also was sheriff – said he saw the same things with meth labs there as he's seen here. They were moving out of the area, he said, which is happening up and down the state.


Interstate 5 runs through Kings County, and officers saw meth increasingly being transported up and down the state, McClain said.


McClain said marijuana is more prevalent in Lake County. “It's a little harder to track here because it's a mountainous area,” he said, noting Kings is fairly flat.


Kings, he added, did see an increase in indoor marijuana grows and people leasing large agricultural orchards to cover their marijuana growing operations.


Mitchell said there has been an increase in illicit marijuana growing in Lake County, especially on public lands such as the Mendocino National Forest. He attributes most of that activity to Mexican nationals paid to come here to grow the drug.


“It doesn't stop there,” he said, explaining that the money from the pot gardens goes to smuggling meth into the United States.


“The drug problem is multifaceted,” he said. “It is more interconnected than it used to be.”


The argument over decriminalizing marijuana growing doesn't address what Mitchell calls the “immediate, present realities” facing law enforcement as it deals with criminal profiteers destroying public lands and threatening public safety.


“We have real problems that are not going to be resolved by pretending it's not a problem,” he said.


He added that he plans to continue fighting illegal marijuana in the county.


Other agencies plan to continue involvement


The county's other law enforcement leaders have indicated that they'll continue their involvement in the narcotic task force.


McClain said his department has added more resources to the effort, going from one committed officer to two.


For McClain, the main changes that he sees is the state's departure. DOJ paid for an office for the task force and a supervising agent, who had oversight duties, along with conducting audits of evidence and money.


“The sheriff's office and the county are taking on those responsibilities,” said McClain.


Overall, supervision and the executive board will remain the same, he said.


“The way I look at it is, the task force is still in place, it's still running,” said McClain.


He said some aspects will be done differently, and the task force will be more case-based. “We're just looking at overall results.”


Loveless said CHP will continue working closely with all of the task force's allied agencies.


He said the task force will remain strong, with Lake County Probation also now contributing an officer. CHP will have multiple officers assigned to the task force as cases develop.


Loveless said the CHP's statewide commander, Joe Farrow, has taken a stance that he supports the DOJ's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement's efforts in drug enforcement.


He said CHP also has committed five officers statewide to work with the DOJ's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting – known more commonly as CAMP.


McClain thinks the task force has done a good job.


“The hard thing with the task force and what they do is when you work with the public, a lot of what they do people don't see,” he said.


McClain said he would like to see the task force's work be more visible so the public can better understand its functions.


Mitchell said local law enforcement is putting together a “full court press” to get the DOJ back into the local task force.


“The sooner the better,” he said.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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