By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– If you are thinking of using, making or selling illegal drugs in North Liberty, be advised that the men and women in blue are going to be out looking for you.
Since 2001, the North Liberty Police Department (NLPD) has been a participating member of the Johnson County Multi-Agency Drug Task Force. While the department has had officers assisting the task force, it has been a goal to have an officer assigned fulltime to the mission of battling drug crime.
In January, that goal was achieved.
The purpose of the task force is to investigate, apprehend and prosecute individuals or organizations associated with the manufacture, distribution and sale of controlled substances. The multi-agency task force serves the two-county area of Johnson and Iowa counties. For fiscal year 2013, the task force, through the Iowa City Police Department, received $96,762 in grant funding from the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, administered at the federal level through the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in partnership with State Administering Agencies (SAAs).
“The multi-agency approach allows the participating agencies to work together as a single enforcement entity with the ability to improve communication, share intelligence, combine resources and coordinate enforcement activity,” NLPD acting chief Diane Venenga explained. Additionally, assets such as property and money are seized.
Venenga declined to identify the officer, but said his duties will include developing cases for State and Federal prosecution, controlled drug buys, surveillance activities, development of confidential informants, applying for and serving search warrants, undercover operations and mitigating clandestine drug laboratories.
To support the assignment, the city council approved the purchase of an unmarked vehicle for use by the officer. The previous chief, Jim Warkentin, had requested up to $16,000 out of the City’s Drug Task Force fund of $37,000. The fund is the result of drug task force forfeiture funds, which have been collected since the department was started.
“These funds can be used on non-budgetary items, drug enforcement, cleanup cost of clandestine labs and training,” said Venenga. The Iowa City Police Department distributes the funds to the participating agencies. Venenga explained it is an often-lengthy process to acquire the money. “It depends on the jurisdiction where the forfeiture or crime was committed. In the past, if a North Liberty officer was involved, North Liberty would get a small percentage.” The funds are divided by the agencies involved in the investigation, she said, and law enforcement agencies with fulltime members assigned receive a larger percentage “because they are responsible for the investigation,” according to Venenga. Those are also the officers responsible for presenting the case and pertinent information to the prosecutors.
Prior to the assignment of the officer, the city received only seven percent of the drug funds collected in Johnson County. With the officer assigned, the amount should increase to around 17 percent. Although the Drug Task Force Fund is available to the NLPD, Venenga does not have a blank check to work with. The city council has oversight of the account and has to approve its use.
With primary duties in North Liberty, the officer will also be available to the rest of the county. In North Liberty alone, there were 154 drug busts in 2011, 124 in 2012 and 22 as of March 21 of this year. Marijuana is the most common drug encountered, and Venenga pointed out an officer can come across it during the normal course of their daily duties, such as during a traffic stop or from a complaint from the public. Methamphetamine, crack/cocaine and heroin have also been found in the area, Venenga said, and “(synthetic drugs, such as K2) are causing a great threat to the public safety and welfare.”
Venenga expects having an officer on the task force will decrease the availability of illegal drugs and deter trafficking, by increasing the risk of detection, apprehension, prosecution and conviction, of those involved. Also, dealing drugs should be less profitable as more seizures and forfeitures are anticipated. By curtailing drug activity, other criminal acts should also decrease.
“We know that drug use and criminal behavior are related. Research shows that the users are more likely than non-users to commit crimes,” said Venenga. Arrestees and inmates were more often than not under the influence of drugs at the time they committed their crimes, and drug trafficking and distribution also tends to generate violence.
Also, the potential for children to be exposed to drug use and the toxic environment of a clandestine lab should also decline. The NLPD encounters one or two meth labs on average each year. Due to the multitude of hazards, it is difficult and expensive to not only secure the scene, but to have it cleaned up.
Venenga also hopes for an increase in educational programs with the schools and other community-based programs in addition to the stepped-up investigation and enforcement efforts.
“This is one more resource that the North Liberty police can utilize to combat illegal drugs and narcotics in the area.”