By Crystal Burns
Drug Task Forces across the state are making communities safer by crippling drug dealers’ businesses, and they’re doing it without taxpayer money.
Leaders with the West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force held a town hall meeting in Humboldt last week to discuss the headway units are making in the war on drugs as well as the ongoing challenges officers face.
Gibson County is in the 28th Judicial District, which is represented by Special Agent in Charge John Carter and District Attorney General Garry Brown. Brown said the 28th Drug Task Force had opened 168 drug cases, made 133 felony arrests, identified 20 gang members, and confiscated 24 pounds of pot, 78 grams of cocaine, and 4.6 pounds of meth this year.
“Most of those arrests would not have been made without the Drug Task Force,” Brown said. “Most of those drug dealers would still be out there doing what they did before except for the Drug Task Force.”
In the 28th Judicial District, the Crockett and Gibson County Sheriff’s Departments and the Humboldt, Milan, and Trenton Police Departments commit at least one officer to the task force. Brown said the local sheriffs’ and police chiefs’ willingness to participate in the task force and provide manpower is key to its success. He and other speakers also said the task forces couldn’t exist without the state’s forfeiture laws.
Steve Jones, a Shelby County prosecutor who represents the West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force, said forfeiture laws hit drug dealers where it hurts and arguments against the state’s civil forfeiture laws are essentially calls for less law enforcement.
David McGriff, deputy commissioner of the Department of Safety, said forfeiture laws work because legislators have finetuned them and departmental attorneys carefully review each case.
He said that in 2016, the Department of Safety, which handles adjudication of forfeitures, sent about $17.3M and 5,000 vehicles to local police and sheriff’s departments, and 2017 is on track to post similar figures.
From January to September 2017, the Drug Task Force received about $76,000 from forfeitures, and the Humboldt, Milan, and Trenton Police Departments and Gibson County Sheriff’s Department had received about $18,000.
Drug Task Forces also get some grant money.
Tim Helldorfer, chief of the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, said at the conclusion of 27 vehicle stops, officers had returned $330,402 back to the individuals. He said the task force probably could have won 98 percent of the cases.
“We don’t want to be one bad seizure away from a forfeiture problem,” Helldorfer said.
Gibson County Sheriff Paul Thomas didn’t have specific numbers but said his deputies also return cash and property any time they have questions if the items are related to crime.
“If we’re not 100 percent sure, we don’t do it,” he said. “We’ve never lost a civil case.”
Newest drug problem
Helldorfer told officers the newest drug problem to reach West Tennessee is heroin, but rural areas aren’t seeing a lot of it yet.
“This stuff is very, very deadly,” Helldorfer said. “It’s not what it was in the 70s. The heroin today is a lot stronger.”
Helldorfer also said the Drug Task Force agents saw the opioid crisis coming but fentanyl has changed things dramatically. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin. In October, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported that it had found fentanyl in cocaine for the first time.
“The fentanyl is a game changer,” Helldorfer said.
Task force history
Phil Bivens, retiring district attorney general for Dyer and Lake counties, gave a brief history of the West Tennessee Violent Crime and Drug Task Force. Through an agreement with the 25th Drug Task Force, the area covered includes Crockett, Gibson, Haywood, Dyer, Lake, Shelby, Fayette, Hardeman, Lauderdale, McNairy, and Tipton counties. The task force began in 1995.
“It’s quite a legacy of excellence that you all are continuing today,” Bivens said.
Bivens was elected as district attorney in 1992 and started a drug task force in his district soon thereafter. Two years later, he abandoned it but joined the more regional approach to the task force in ’95.
“It did fantastic work at the time, has continued to do fantastic work,” he said.
Bivens’ colleagues, Brown and Shelby County DA Amy Weirich, honored him at his final town hall, presenting him with a plaque expressing appreciation for his commitment to the West Tennessee task force.
Brown also presented an award to Special Agent John Carter from the Tennessee Narcotics Officers Association for Operation Trojan Horse, a six-month investigation that resulted in 51 indictments and nearly 70 felony drug charges in March.
Weirich presented the Officer of the Year Award to Helldorfer for his commitment to justice and service to the community.
“[The Drug Task Force] is about saving lives,” she said.